down in my heart
I’ve been turning joy over in my heart like a oblong stone in the palm of my hand. What is this thing we call joy?
It sits, a tiny weight in my pocket, until I reach in and roll it around between thumb and palm and fingers. Smooth, almost soft, but uneven. My hand works to fit against the stone.
It’s on my mind because it has seemed so hard to come by. As an empty belly inclines itself toward thoughts of food, so my empty heart preoccupies itself with joy.
Trials abound. A long, unrelenting sickness leads to a move so quick it’s preposterous: one week from deciding to move to unpacking the last of the boxes. Preparation for an event, one that should call forth eagerness, takes on water when it is asked to bear twice its weight in contention. Evenings fill up. We forget solitude, silence. Sabbaths get hijacked by that irrational impulse to draw near in hostility rather than in love. Where is the joy in it all?
And over all of this, which could be nothing more than inconveniences and perhaps as much as adventures in the mind of another, slumps darkness. It’s unfortunate that dwelling on the sun on a gloomy day has no effect on its ability to burn off the fog.
I anticipate the advice I’ll get if I confess my lack of joy: just count your blessings!
But I don’t want joy that’s the sum of my blessings. I’m bad at that sort of arithmetic. One ray of sunshine, two cups of tea, three good songs on the radio…
What if they don’t add up? What if they don’t reach joy’s threshold? Too often they don’t and though I am grateful for the sunshine and glad for the tea and though I sing along with the radio, the deep joy isn’t there.
I know it’s not happiness. I learned that a long time ago, in Sunday school, when the teacher told us that happiness is a feeling and joy is a ______. That’s what I can’t remember. What is joy? The way I describe it these days, as I yearn for it, is a sureness in the belly. Essential, foundational. Undergirding. Not at the mercy of circumstances and environment, nor of my own ability to summon it. A kind of trust, hope even.
But trust and hope are their own nouns. What is joy? It seems to be a divergent problem, of the sort that E. F. Schumacher says has no single, clean solution. No matter how many times I turn the stone over in my pocket, I will not solve joy. It’s too expansive for that. Joy is at turns trust, now hope, now happiness. On occasion, joy’s definition may even reside awfully close to despair.
A few weeks ago, a friend expressed feeling an immense need to keep her light burning—and also the certainty that it’s not hers to maintain. What would it mean to just crumple, to give up, to say, “I can’t keep this light burning” and slump to the floor? Would the joy burn out? Or, in that moment when stoking the fire finally gave way to despair and exhaustion, would Christ’s joy keep burning and somehow give us light?
There the trust and the hope and the despair all converge on joy. A joy that’s given, not mustered. No amount of striking my match against the box will bring forth light. But I know the source of the light. And I can huddle near it, even when the cold, dark wilderness presses in.
So what is joy? I don’t know.
On sunny days, I hardly even ask the question. On dreary ones, I beg to know. Gladden the soul of your servant, Lord.
But maybe the asking is part of the finding. Look up toward the sun; dig down through the earth. Her heart is aflame.
And listen to this song, which is most fitting for that stretch of heart where joy and melancholy overlap:
And make these brussels sprouts. Caramelized vinegar has an unrivaled power to lift even the saddest heart out of its misery, if even for a moment.
Balsamic Brussels Sprouts
several pounds of brussels sprouts
1/4 – 1/2 c. olive oil
1/4 – 1/2 c. balsamic vinegar
1/4 c. brown sugar
3 cloves garlic, minced
Preheat the oven to 450°F. Slice the brussels sprouts in half and peel off any wilted leaves. Spread all the brussels sprouts on a baking sheet or pan (9×13 or larger) so that they have some breathing room between each other. Douse the whole thing with plenty of olive oil and vinegar. A good quarter-cup of each. You don’t want to drown the sprouts, but coat them well. Sprinkle them with brown sugar, add the minced garlic and a generous pinch of salt, and toss everything with your hands. Give the pan a few good shakes to spread the brussels sprouts evenly across the pan again before baking.
Bake for 20 to 40 minutes, stirring them occasionally. When the brussels sprouts are browned and tender (but not mushy), pull them out of the oven and serve immediately. We dare you not to eat them for dessert, too.