On February 25, 2020, I started a daily diary of joy. In the bleakest month of the year, hoping to shrug off some of the uncertainty I felt about my future, I imagined that this list could help me to claim a small harbor of calm amid the commotion of my life. Every night I wrote down at least one kindness, one source of beauty or unexpected light, joy defined broadly. I tracked my students’ growth, long talks with friends in busy bars, sticky ice cream cones, walks and readings and travel, like a trip, that first weekend, to the Hudson Valley, north of where I lived in New York City, where my lungs burned in the bitterly cold air, and the sky was so blue it hurt to look at. “A balm,” I wrote.
In the beginning of my list, finding new joys, basking in them, was easy. I can see a little of myself in Zadie Smith’s description, in her essay “Joy,” about how her days are filled with little pleasures, not because “so many wonderful things happen” but because “the small things go a long way.” Smith experiences pure delight in ordinary things, like a popsicle, or the expression on a passing stranger’s face, and I think I am somewhat the same way. I am also a “gawker,” as she calls herself, and I’m an eavesdropper too. I gawk not just at people’s faces and conversations but also at my surroundings in general, at the spray paint on the sidewalk and the new sculptures in the galleries and the smell of hot pizza on the breeze. I am delighted by words (I keep a list of those, too), by books, and poems, by meals and names and songs and trees, and ultimately by kismet, connection.
On the train going south, heading back to New York City at the end of February, I was aware that even as I sat there, watching light snow float to the frozen ground outside (a joy), noticing the way the winter sun sunk over the river (another), that I could already be sick, that I might be sick right now. I thought about my students’ coughs and runny noses, about returning to our windowless, unventilated classroom, choking on chalk dust and each other’s breath. As I wrote down my joys that night, cries of alarm about the mysterious disease that killed young doctors and silenced whole cities echoed in my ears, a chorus of Cassandras.
In February, when I explained my earnest anxiety about a virus half the world away, others snorted or shrugged, squinting as they tried to recall if I’d ever let hints of hypochondria slip before this. They were skeptical when I kept my mittens on in the subway, or squeezed a dollop of hand sanitizer into my palm as we pushed through the turnstile, which I nudged forward with my hip. I was often the first person my friends and family had encountered who was panicking about what might be coming; sometimes, I passed my panic to them, another kind of transmission. I ordered boxes of Gatorade and cough syrup, feeling silly as I stowed them in my closet. For weeks, I read everything I could about the “novel coronavirus,” a word that reminded me of the sun, of a crown like a braid of spiky fire. Usually, the more I understand something the less scary it is; this is why my reaction to anxiety is to dive into history and others’ expertise. When panic about Ebola struck New York in 2014, I wasn’t worried, even as the whole city seemed to be obsessively mapping the route that a single infected doctor had taken from Harlem to Brooklyn, from the 1 train to the Meatball Shop to bowling and back, because I felt that I knew the facts, and the facts said I had no reason to fear that disease. But the more I read about this new virus, the more afraid I became. Alongside my joys, I collected information, looking for a sign that it wasn’t so bad as it seemed. Good news was hard to come by. Fear creeped into my dreams: rats and gunshots and hospital gowns, spiders on the ceiling whose forms ashed into shadow whenever I lurched awake.
In March, I woke up in a new decade every day. The world roiled, and I clung to my little joys, the smallest, most insignificant happinesses. “The look of recognition in the eyes of someone you admire,” I wrote, on March 2. “A compliment on the train,” on March 7. I knew, by then, that I was recording memories of something about-to-be-extinguished, all those entries about the interactions I had with strangers and acquaintances and crowds. In the midst of my clamor to excavate joy from unfolding tragedy, I revisited the work of the poet Amy Lowell, who wrote at the height of the Spanish flu in 1918, as World War I raged, about the beauty of a fall day: “This afternoon was the color of water falling through sunlight;/ The trees glittered with the tumbling of leaves;/ The sidewalks shone like alleys of dropped maple leaves.” But even as she recorded the details of this scene, Lowell couldn’t fully savor the pleasures of it: the little boys she saw collecting berries, the glittering trees. That joy was denied her, trapped as she was in the turmoil of her present. Joys shimmering in the distance, a mirage in a desert of despair. I tried to close a fist around them anyway.
In the introduction to Joy: 100 Poems, an anthology of poetry about joy, Christian Wiman writes that “clamoring after joy leads only to fevered simulacra: an art of professional echoes and planned epiphanies, the collected swells of manipulative religion, the manufactured euphoria of drugs.” But I think my clamoring was not about seeking; it wasn’t about carving new paths out of my old routines, about going in search of joy. Rather, I wanted to clear a space to pay more attention to the joys that were already there, the ones that I noted every ordinary day before they slipped through my fingers like rainwater. To inscribe those joys was to make something more of them, to memorialize them in order to give them more weight, a balance against chaos. It was a way of proving to myself how much joy the instability of my life — including my worst hours, the darkest turns — actually held.
My younger brother and I had planned to visit my parents in their suburban home in Pennsylvania long before the virus arrived on American shores, and in early March we kept those plans, to go back to the house where we grew up, traveling from New York, where we both lived. The New York I left was almost normal. The trains were packed with people, nothing shut down or canceled, one woman coughing into a blue surgical mask in an empty subway car the only aberration. Broadway shows and awards dinners and public gatherings were still taking place. I watched fellow passengers on the train sneezing and sighing and hugging and clutching the metal subway poles with their bare hands, touching their uncovered chins and rubbing their eyes between stops. I thought it was odd that I didn’t yet know anyone personally who had the virus. The sick people I knew of were all at least a degree of separation away.
In mid-March, when we’d been at my parents’ home long enough to believe that we weren’t, and wouldn’t become, sick, my brother came down with a fever in the middle of the night. My brother and I thought we had been careful, standing apart from my mother’s outstretched arms when we stepped off the train, covering our hands in soap, coating every kitchen surface in disinfectant, self-isolating in their home and within it. But had we been careful enough? I began, for the first time in my life, to appreciate the simple gift of a clear breath, something I had always taken for granted. Breathing with your belly is a joy.
Those first few days I was sure my father was wrong that my brother had the virus; hard to comprehend the journey of a scrap of genetic material from the blood of a Chinese bat across two oceans and three continents, let alone believe that scrap was now in the same room as I was. My brother did not cough, even as his fever climbed, and he became so weak that it was all he could do to sit up in bed, to raise a glass of water to his lips. He isn’t coughing, I told myself, a mantra. He isn’t coughing. The unspoken second half of that sentence ran below the chant: that means he doesn’t have it. It had become obvious, as the days cascaded from closure to closure, as my brother’s illness crescendoed, and the prophecies of Italy and China became real in New York, that now we were here, we couldn’t leave. We wouldn’t be leaving for a long time.
While we waited for his test results (a miracle that he was tested at all), my brother watched movies about pandemics and plagues, wanting, I guess, to stare straight into the possibilities of his fear. I watched him, listening to his breathing, waiting for a wheeze or a stutter. I looked at him, and images of his childhood flickered behind my eyes: my brother, 20 years ago, curled up in my parents’ bed, his forehead slick and a thermometer propped in his mouth, the phone receiver in my hand and my mother’s voice in my ear. James Baldwin wrote about the “strange perspective” on “time and human pain and effort” that you gain when you’ve known a person for a lifetime, and that effect, that layering of pasts, was magnified by the fact of our surroundings, the same house where we’d been kids. Behind his brother’s present face, Baldwin writes, “are all those other faces which were his.”
A twinge in my shoulder flared into screaming pain every time I tried to turn my head, a physical reminder of the tension coiled in my muscles, the way that stress lodges into joints. Still, he didn’t cough. I listened at night to the sounds of my father snoring downstairs, to the silence on the other side of my brother’s door, alert to any unexpected noise. I breathed slowly in my bed, wondering if tomorrow I might not be able to, if tomorrow I might have to fight for air. When I called my friends, quarantined in New York, the room filled with the shrieks of the ambulance sirens on the streets below their apartments — a knot tightening in my throat.
How to be afraid in my childhood home, where I weathered the standard fears of adolescence, but where I still don’t know how to be an adult, because it is the place I had to leave in order to become myself? This is where I sobbed over party invitations that never came and boys who broke my fragile heart; it is where I wanted to be an explorer, where I first dreamed of running, where I was sure I’d never learn how to be a person with no tether. I kept to my joy-list, now devoid of all the human serendipities of city living, and filled instead with quieter, natural noticing: a shard of bird song, the comfort of a deep sleep, the carpet of violets in the yard where grass should be.
When we learned for certain that the virus was inside the house, I spent four hours making an apple pie, flour streaking my hair, the scorch of lemon juice beneath my fingernails, clouds of cinnamon in the kitchen — cinnamon my brother could not smell. A recipe promises certainty, instructions with a known destination, and I just wanted to be certain about one thing. The fact of the pie, golden on the counter, those curls of hot steam, was a joy. Late that night, I watched the shapes of branches moving across the windowpane in the bedroom; their shadows made the lone porch light across the street flicker and dance. I tilted my head, willing it not to go out. Small constancies can be a joy, too, especially when the ground is shifting beneath your feet.
The next morning the bathroom sink was full of ants, freckling the white porcelain surface with black. I tried to mop them up with a tissue, but I couldn’t catch them. They shimmied up the faucet, scurried across the taps, leapt to their deaths on the tile below. A friend pointed out the symbolism of ants, both in Valeria Luiselli’s Lost Children Archive and in One Hundred Years of Solitude, where ants stand in as a marker of endings, of conclusions, a bad omen.
That morning I was desperate for the scent of lilac in the soap that I lathered on my hands until it frothed like sea foam, and the red skin on my knuckles split open, bloody. Could I still smell the lilac? Was it there? Before, lilac contained the waft of my grandmother’s perfume, the memory of potted plants that I bought in Philadelphia and sunk into the garden soil outside our front door. They are my mother’s favorite color, ghosts that hang around the spindly lilac tree still clinging to the side of the house, the one that hasn’t flowered since I was a child. Now lilac was a forecast, and a joy every time my brain identified and registered its sweetness. As one week stretched into two and then three and four, the worries that had dogged my thoughts before faded out until I could hardly remember what they were. Each breath was a test. Fear sat heavy on my chest, curled up like a cat.
Every day that I woke up not knowing if today I would be sick, if today my brother’s illness would worsen, if today one of my parents wouldn’t be able to get out of bed, it became harder to find joys to add to my diary, harder still to commit them to writing. The entries were shorter and shorter; before I’d written sentences and paragraphs, now I could manage only single words: jokes, friends, tomatoes, camaraderie. Even though they were truncated, each one was like an exclamation point, more intense and more deeply felt than the joys I’d observed earlier. When I did find them, they knocked me over. I nearly wept at the sight of new buds on the sprawling limbs of a dogwood tree down the street, that shock of green life after barren winter.
Maybe part of what makes something truly joyful is that it lives alongside sadness. In reading Ross Gay’s The Book of Delights, his year-long catalog of whimsy and glee, compassion and connection, I was struck by Gay’s attempts to define what delight is, delight (which is one emotional step over from joy) as something that is both with and without light, something that holds darkness and illumination at once. Gay goes further, writing that he sees “terror and delight sitting next to each other, their feet dangling off the side of a bridge very high up.” Joy is about being present (Kierkegaard: “Joy is the present tense”), and so is fear. They both drag us back into the moment we are currently in, turning our gaze forcibly to now.
Sometimes delight comes in a package with loneliness or regret or loss, or it’s delivered in the shape of grief. Gay tells the story of attending the funeral of a young girl who’d died in an accident, and how, in the gloom of that aftermath, there was on the floor a silver earring in the figure of an elephant, her favorite animal: that shiny spot of delight. Delight cannot exist without its mirror, Gay is saying, much as Vladimir Nabokov did when he wrote that art is where beauty meets pity: “Where there is beauty there is pity for the simple reason that beauty must die.” I am thinking of that carpet of violets in bloom, and the knowledge that someday soon their petals will wither and shrink, of a butterfly’s wings stilled by an early frost. In “Joy,” which Gay also quotes, Zadie Smith writes something similar; she writes that joy is a “strange admixture of terror, pain, and delight.” It’s the temporary state of beauty that makes it so precious; it’s the fleeting nature of joy that makes us chase it, our knowing that we cannot hold that feeling for long. The joys that I collected at the height of my terror were more joyful because of that terror: that laughter shared through a screen, the crocuses by the side of the road, chirping blue jays, stubborn hope. Joys meant a wrenching back into the present and away from my attempts to read the future, my guessing at how a different past might have built a different reality. On a map of the national park a few towns over from where I grew up, you will find Mt. Joy, and, beside it, Mt. Misery. A pair.
I think it is logical to ask if it is obscene — if it is allowed — to surrender to joy in the midst of so much pain, of grief on a global scale. But I have come to believe that allowing for joy is perhaps the only way I know how to hold onto faith, faith in other people, faith in art, faith that there will be peace again, that healing is still possible. I don’t think that we have to wait for “some day,” when the war is over, as Lowell writes, “to take out this afternoon/ And turn it in my fingers,/ And remark the sweet taste of it upon my palate.” Because there’s a way in which joy might actually be an expression of the bond between ourselves and others; Gay writes in his chronicle of delight that joy “is the underground union between us, you and me, which is, among other things, the great fact of our life and the lives of everyone and thing we love going away… We might call it sorrow, but we might call it a union, one that, once we notice it, once we bring it into the light, might become flower and food.” It is an act of resistance, a means of survival, and a celebration of what makes us human, to savor our joys when we can, not in spite of sorrow but because of it.
My brother recovered slowly, and we kept away from him as much as we could, leaving trays of food and water outside his door, treating his used silverware as if poison-dipped, as if one touch could scald. Still, we weren’t sick, and his fever was breaking. Every day I exhaled a little more, and my joys were exhales, too: “getting a little stronger,” “when the storm clears,” “even in pain, laughter.” Every breath like a miracle. When he had fully recovered, and the immediate danger, at least from this source, had passed, we went to the local animal shelter to adopt a cat. Pets are full of small joys: the swish of a silky tail against your ankles, a nose nudged into your hand, purring. The cat was middle-aged and striped; she’d been at the shelter since January, and I wondered what her life was like before. She was also a tangible reminder of the pet we had when I was small, another brown tabby with celery-green eyes and fur the color of coffee cream. She was a comfort to me and to my family immediately, sidling up to us as we sat on the couch, following us from room to room, sitting with my brother all day while he worked.
I’ve been thinking, in these hectic, blurry days, about Mt. Joy, and its wooded trails in the park a few miles away, now closed to visitors because of the outbreak. It is one of my favorite places to walk, because of the way the trail is carved out of the mountain. You park at the base of the slope, and cross a planked bridge into an upward path, passing through a dense forest, the rocky track dim beneath thick canopy. Up and up and up, your feet slipping on the stones below, spots of brightness and sky a rarity. And then there is a moment when you can see sunshine ahead, so unexpected and so welcome, illuminating a bounded meadow of tall, swaying grasses. Sun like a new revelation. The forest opens, and it is almost holy, all that warmth, all that light, after so much darkness.