The Power of Small Joys
Happy Magic Manufacturing Season!
The small people in my life are at peak holiday magic age, and since their joy is my drug of choice, I am going BONKERS!
We have a lego advent calendar, and a jam advent calendar, and a little stuffed gnome who gets up to varying hijinks.
We are all egg nog all the time.
We are making cranberry garlands for the trees and screeching with delight when the birds come to eat.
We are pouring glitter on pinecones in our spare time, and the clamoring for cut out cookies and royal frosting has begun.
We’ve got that joy, joy, joy up in our house… And I am worn out with it.
A breaking point came for me recently with one of those cranberry garlands, when my girls decided that it had to be extra special, and the only thing that could make it extra special was golden thread.
Now, I don’t know how many of you have golden thread lying about your house, but I do not.
Honestly, I resented the request. I had worked hard for our holiday family magic, and these children were now withholding it from me, no matter how hard I tried to make it all joy.
In that moment, it seemed, golden thread was required for our holiday joy. And there was no golden thread to be had.
Much wailing and gnashing of teeth ensued. The children were also upset.
We get a lot of messaging this time of year about joy.
And sometimes amid all that messaging I get swept up in the idea that joy is some perma-state we would all arrive at if I can just get everything exactly right.
If I can have all the right traditions, all the right foods on hand, or things planned, then joy will finally settle over us lastingly, like a great glittering blanket.
But the nature of joy is not permanent. And the truth of joy is not all encompassing.
Joy, in fact, lives right next to impermanence. Our reverie in beauty and sacred delight is heightened all the more because it is fleeting, because the things that really shine and sparkle in this life are always on the edge of snuffing out.
And neither is joy all-encompassing. Joy is not a great glittering blanket we can wrap ourselves in head to foot. It is a sparkling thread running through a great tapestry of life, which is always woven fine with sorrow & heartache. It is only ever our presence to the whole tapestry that brings the sparkling thread into sight.
Joy never does arrive once and for all to chase away everything else does it?
It simply comes along side sometimes, threading itself until we notice and are startled to see the sparkle in the mundane… or the terrible.
So where did we get this idea that joy could be permanent, all encompassing, and large enough to blot out every sorrow?
My guess is we got it exactly where religion and economy and empire became tangled.
Which is where we get most of our dumbest ideas.
The logic of empire seeks to consolidate and expand its power and cling to that control forever. Indeed it seeks to be permanent, all encompassing, and large enough to blot out every uncertainty, whose other name is freedom.
When empire meets economy, it plunders human and earthly value alike in the pursuit of limitless growth and the siphoning of collective and individual power up to the very top where it can be controlled.
And when empire and capitalism meet religion, we see all kinds of wild theological leaps, from the shallow spirituality and acquisitiveness of the prosperity gospel to the flattening and universalizing abstraction of some liberal religion to the ultimate faith claim that there is some other reality that is pure, permanent, all encompassing, and untouched by sorrow, and where we will eventually arrive when we leave this world of sin.
No wonder we get all twisted up about experiencing joy in this life!
Empire and capitalism meet religion to teach us the principles of growth forever and more more more and bigger is better (until we come to our bodies, which they would prefer to be small and uniform for their convenience).
They teach us our joy must be invulnerable and protected… an approach that is sure to suffocate every bright flame, which needs oxygen and space to burn forth.
They teach us to look away from the bright thread that is already here in favor of some future blanketing.
My tradition, Unitarian Universalism, at its best, can point us in another direction.
We are by now a this-worldly faith, with a trust in and experience of the immanence of the sacred. We are a people who attempt to hold at once the deep value of the very particular, alongside the interconnected beauty of the whole.
We tend to believe in the ever-changing and that the eternal and sacred are available to us, never entirely or all-at-once, but in shining moments that appear in this life, if we are radically present enough to notice them.
A more consistent experience of the joy that is already threaded through the whole world requires us reclaim the power of that faith in the small, the hint, the moment. It requires us to find true power in vulnerability — that what is most delightful to us is so because it is fragile and fleeting and so very precious.
Which brings me back to my pursuit of holiday magic.
This season that is marketed to us as ALL JOY is actually a season of waiting in the dark for a seed of a promise, and rededicating our hearts with only a small flame.
The Hanukkah candles lit by our Jewish friends don’t commemorate a single-handed burning down of empire but a small and steady resistance and the miracle of a small flame that is sustained, not forever, but beyond every reasoned expectation.
The Advent season marked by our Christian friends expectantly awaits the coming of God in the wrinkled, squirming body of a tiny baby who arrives entirely in smallness, in weakness to confront the powers that be.
The magic of these two winter holidays is the expectation of wonder and the full presence to what is small and sustaining. They remind us, both of them in their varied and particular ways, that this world is threaded through with shining glimpses of the holy, if we will attend carefully to seek it.
I recently read this poem “Ode to Buttoning and Unbuttoning my Shirt” by Ross Gay, whose work is a master class in the power of small joy to absolutely arrest one’s attention and attune one’s day. Who knew we could wonder so fully and profoundly at the act of buttoning a shirt? Who knew that the miracle of buttons is entangled with the heart of the mystery and sorrowful beauty of this life — that the same fingers that will one day close the eyes of our beloved dead are engaged each morning in opening and closing of a mundane sort that is entirely related to the more profound?
In an On Being interview with Krista Tippett`, Gay talks about his essay collection The Book of Delights, which he created by challenging himself to write an essay about something that delighted him every single day. Gay is a poet, so he is attuned to the tragedy and complexity of life. He is also a black man in America, keenly aware of the oppression and violence that threatens his body and his beloveds daily. He tells Tippett in the interview that he thought it would be terribly difficult to find a delight to write about every day.
Instead he found that delight was everywhere, when he focused his attention more fully on the small and ordinary moments of his day. Suddenly it all became a miracle. The buttons on his shirt and the foam on his latte. He realized that delight only required a seed of wonder. Just a realization of “wow, that’s cool” and reverie, and indeed joy, could be close at hand.
The entirely and all at once may arrive some day, although my belief in the constancy of change and the power of creativity leads me to believe it probably will not. It hardly matters.
Because the eternal, the transcendent, indeed the holy, is already here, and already now, threaded through the buttons on our shirts, if we will seek the small joys, and follow the golden thread that is already woven into the world, perhaps just where we would least think or wish to seek it.
I want to be extra clear that this is not “the good news of an attitude adjustment” (in the words of my colleague Sadie Lansdale) — if someone is telling you to fix your life simply by focusing on the positive, run away.
That is called spiritual bypass — the act of using shallow interpretations of spirituality to avoid, suppress, or escape from uncomfortable emotions, situations, or thoughts.
Spiritual maturity requires a much deeper integration, will call us to presence over avoidance every single time.
My faith tugs me toward something different altogether, which is the reminder to attend carefully and with radical presence to all of life, which is of course full of challenge, but also shot through with sparkling threads of profound joy, all at once.
My faith is in the perpetual presence of those threads, which is a startling and beautiful truth.
We don’t always have easy access to that joy, whether because of a period of unhelpful brain chemistry, a trauma, or a dark night of the soul.
But the true good news is that it is always there for us to return to when our capacity for presence inevitably returns.
That the world is threaded through with sparkling joy that cannot be stripped away, even by those who would seek to plunder it and sell it back to you.
This world is holy, holy, holy, even and especially in the tiny moments we might miss if we are chasing what we perceive to be permanent, all-encompassing, and large enough to blot out every sorrow
The further good news that we can experience that joy more fully, more fruitfully, more powerfully, when we are prepared to welcome smallness into our lives.
When we can turn our attention away from the spectacle and back into the heart of each day.
This afternoon my kids are going to make gingerbread houses, from a pre-made box, mind you. I will confess that I have some sparkly gold sprinkles on hand to avoid the whining I can avoid.
But I am preparing my heart to notice the ecstasy of my youngest as the frosting ends up in her mouth instead of the house, even while I cringe at her screeching.
I am preparing to admire the new precision developing in my eldest’s art, even while I intervene in conflicts over the pink gumdrops.
It will all be there: frustration and love, screeching and smiles, sibling rivalry and the shining sacred.
May we be present to it all, and may the sparkle of the smallest joys catch our eye, arrest our hearts, and carry us in the profound knowledge of the holy woven through it all.
Happy Magic Season y’all!