Hard joy

I feel like the longer I practice druidry, the more I sit and talk with the gods and spirits, the more I have to sit with uncertainty and contradiction, the more I have to let go of my own knowing. Not that I don’t have my own will or direction — I do, and I don’t truck with spirits that would deny that — but rather I have to keep accepting that, smart as I may be, I often don’t know better. The spirits aren’t omniscient or infallible by any means, but they are very old. They’ve seen a lot, far more than I have or ever hope to.

But still, it’s hard to let go. At Three Cranes Grove’s most recent high day ritual, when we asked “what do the Kindreds ask of us,” we were told, fairly unambiguously, that they wanted… joy. Seriously?

I mean, sure, it was a May Day ritual, the sun was shining bright, we danced the Maypole and sang bright songs of renewal and growth. It was all very nice. But… joy? First of all, it seems so facile and self-serving: just keep doing what you’re doing, kids! Rejoice in the spring, ladeeda! This, the mighty gods, wights, ancestors ask of us? Not a hard gift, nor one that felt terribly meaningful to me at the time. Doubly so in our current sociopolitical climate where watching the news (or for that matter just reading social media) is an exercise in anger and horror. The spirits seemed to be asking us to just let it go, be happy. It felt like a betrayal of the duty that I think we owe to each other, to bring to bear whatever powers we have on making the world a better place. It felt all but immoral to be simply joyful.

In addition to being a high day, that was also the night of the full moon, and I had obligations to Manannán. So even though I was dead tired after a high day ritual and then three hours of rehearsal after that, I dragged a chair onto the back stoop where I could see the moon and sit with a glass of whiskey.

I closed my eyes, feeling for the low pulsing of the earth, the whoosh and thrum of the seas, the high crystalline crackle of the sky, the suddenly piercing flame at the center binding it all together. And as I drew the waters of the earth into the central flame, the mist poured out and coalesced into the tall, stern, kingly figure of Manannán. I said “please, lord, this form of you… I don’t know that I can tonight,” and he softened, became grandfatherly, but still with the glint of cold seawater showing intermittently at his cheekbones. I raised my glass, and he raised his. We sipped, and I said, “I’m just so tired tonight, my lord.” “I know,” he said.

I tried again: “Lord, in the omens today, the Kindreds said that they ask of us… joy? Is that you in that omen, too? Do you wish joy of me?”

*   *   *

I’ve been reading Hanif Abdurraqib’s essay collection, They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us. I started it, I think, two days after our May Day ritual. It’s a truly great collection. All of his essays stand alone as insightful personal essays, music criticism, cultural critique. But as a group, they come together to make an emergent argument for a sort of hard-won empathy and compassion.

Abdurraqib holds some of same mistrust of optimism that I do; in “Searching For A New Kind of Optimism,” when pushed by a therapist to challenged his inner cynic, he writes, “when I do, I simply find another inner cynic behind that one. I am, it turns out, a nesting doll of cynics.” I believe humans are capable of great kindness and compassion, but we’re also capable to great hurt, and honestly we seem to turn toward our cruelest impulses when given the slightest opening for them. I love humanity, but I don’t usually expect much of us. Abdurraqib again: “There is no evidence to suggest that humans are going to become any more kind this year, or more empathetic, or more loving toward each other.”

For the Kindreds to ask joy of us seemed like an instruction to quit the fight for goodness,  to give in to our self-centeredness, to settle for complacent happiness. If Abdurraqib is right, and I think he is, then what’s the possible good in letting up? If that’s the unstoppable tide of human antipathy we’re up against, anything less than an unending push for justice seems like a derogation of our human duty.

But Abdurraqib is no nihilist — instead, I think he holds the kind of hard love that James Baldwin’s describes in The Fire Next Time: “I use the word ‘love’ here not merely in the personal sense but as a state of being, or a state of grace — not in the infantile American sense of being made happy but in the tough and universal sense of quest and daring and growth.” In the wake of the Pulse shooting in Orlando, Abduraqqib writes the final essay of his collection, “Surviving On Small Joys.” He opens with an image of boys playing on bikes behind his apartment:

Falling, laughing, and getting right back up. This small bit of joy, for no reason other than because it is truly summer now for most kids. I do not know what they knew of death, or if they knew that a world outside of their own free world was mourning. Or if they knew and, even in knowing, saw clouds blowing in from the south and decided to not let whatever sunshine remained go to waste on a hot summer day to be followed by another hot summer day to be followed by months where the entire land was theirs. The city, a sacred playground with no room for grief.

He then goes on to walk through an ethic of joy, of continuance, or survival. Here, joy isn’t a frivolity, but instead a vital energetic source:

I want to be immensely clear about the fact that we need more than love and joy. […] Joy alone will not grant anyone safety. It can, however, act as a small bit of fuel when the work of resistance becomes too much. […] Joy, in these moments, is the sweetest meal that we keep chasing the perfect recipe for, among a world trying to gather all of the ingredients for itself. I need it to rest on my tongue especially when I am angry, especially when I am afraid, especially when nothing makes sense other than the fact that joy has been, and will always be, the thing that first pulls me from underneath the covers when nothing else will.

*   *   *

On the back stoop, under the pale yellow moon magnificent like a glowing jewel in a cloudless midnight-blue sky, I explained my confusion to my patron god. He responded: “Yes, I wish joy from you. And sometimes this is a soft joy, a vibrancy of enthusiasm. But sometimes it is a hard joy, a joy of doing the right hard thing, a joy of supporting those who can benefit from support even when it tires you, a joy of working hard and achieving. It’s a joy in work, but that also can be an ecstatic joy, at times.”

*   *   *

My conversation with Manannán has been echoing in my thoughts for a good month now, underpinning much of my media consumption, including my reading of They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us, and there’s been something terribly beautiful and confirming about hearing the words of my patron echoed in such considered, insightful prose.

And so I’m trying to take my own (un)knowing and temper it with the greater knowing, not only of the gods but also of those other writers and thinkers, like Abdurraqib, who expand my own vision of the world we share.

*   *   *

Manannán continued: “And remember the last omen, the gift we give, that I give to you: Movement, change for the better. Don’t you feel it?” I laughed, literally laughed in my physical body. Because I did feel it, in every cell of my body, change and growth and movement also in spite of myself, a pull to better serve him and all the spirits and the folk. But still I questioned whether I was doing the right things, pleasing him and the spirits. He interrupted me: “Stop. Stop questioning this. You are moving in the right path.”

And I thought of the first omen, the response to the question “have our gifts been accepted?”: Knowledge. Our seer interpreted this as affirmation, knowledge that our gifts were acceptable. For me, though, it bears an additional meaning: it’s okay to rest on another’s knowledge, to accept that sometimes others know more than you, whether they be mortals or immortals, spirit or flesh. Sometimes the gods prescribe joy, and it’s not an escape at all, but rather a serious injunction to feed the spirit and remind ourselves that the endpoint isn’t mere survival for everyone, for our queer and black and brown and Muslim and woman and nonbinary and immigrant kin. That’s only the first step, the barest minimum before we push on to a world where everyone can experience joy not as a respite but as a medium, as a birthright.

I’ll let Abdurraqib have the final words, again from “Searching For A New Kind Of Optimism:”

So in spite of the newest realities that we must confront and stay uncomfortable with, I’m hoping that I get to stick around for a while. I am hoping, mostly, that we all get better at wishing on the things we need, even in darkness.

Header image: “***” by Alexsey Mk/Flickr. License: CC BY-NC-ND.

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