What is Joy?


I am a blind dog that cannot hear.

I am alone in the street after curfew.

I kneel before you.

Please believe me, I find no peace in my words.   Nothing ever ends, until it finally does, somewhere down the line, where the universe closes the curtain and darkness takes the light to the mapless spot.

I knew these people…these two people and they bloom in unexpected places.

One is an old hippie, a tourist perhaps, who I never met, but he will forever live on a street corner in a tropical country heading for civil war.

Thousands of people walk around the perimeter of the plaza, like twigs swirling down a drain or ants circling a piece of cake.  Trucks and jeeps are everywhere, cutting off access, blocking the people from crossing the street and entering the plaza.  In the breaking dawn, everyone is silent as if facial expression and casual conversation have died and some funeral home on the outskirts of town is preparing for a first-rate burial.

The resistance and response were announced the night before.  From the roofs we could see the flames and hear gunfire.  Was this a massacre or the first step in saving the nation?  It depends upon who you ask.  If the person is a rich landowner or a right-wing politician, than in their private, poolside moments they contend that the children need to die.  The young, after all, are long-term risks and there are so many of them.  Who will miss a few?  Feeling confident they go on to say that the priests, the communists, the journalists, the social workers, the lawyers, the poor, the students, the teachers, and the union leaders…all of them need to be removed.  Take them away to the beauty of the mountains and down the doubtful trails.

The blood is black now and the dead are out of sight, beneath tarps, in the trucks, lying in warehouses.  Moving 500 bodies in six hours is a difficult task.  The army should be congratulated, but remember there are no wounded, only corpses.  A good rain will wash everything away.  The colonels let the people come close.  They don’t mind, since word of mouth is more rapid than newspapers and who better to exaggerate horror than the people: dictators need to be seen as monsters.  It usually works well for domestic policy and the next president has the face of a Halloween skull.  He is proud of his sharp features, his ways, and his family of six.

The old hippie suddenly leaves the line of slow, dumb walkers and crosses the street to the plaza side.  The soldiers watch him and vaguely understand that he must be either insane or high on drugs.  He stops in front of a small group of them and begins to shout that they are dogs and killers of women and children.  “You fuckers are not human!”  He stands there as the Fourth Geneva Convention burns like a Buddhist monk.  His voice rises in the green fronds as the walkers stop and there is an uneasy anticipation.  The soldiers are smiling and then they begin to laugh as a fat sergeant decides what to do.  Everyone is poor in this scene.  Everyone lacks something.

Finally the sergeant signals to a soldier.  In a moment the hippie is on the ground and they cinch a white plastic cord around his wrists.  He is twisting and screaming that he is an American citizen and he knows the law.  The soldiers throw him into the back of a jeep and he is driven away.  You can hear his cries and then there is only silence.  The soldiers laugh one more time and then they turn toward the people on the other side of the street.  No one speaks and you cannot see the movement of lungs and the breeze has tuned to stone.

The silence of the frozen tableau is a necessary part of the tragedy. It is better for the people to become only sketches since the killing has just begun and both sides of the street need to make an assessment of how the game will be played out.

Everyone is content to receive the false grace of a dead god.

The second person is a young woman who hardly every speaks.  I met her through an old friend who is a photographer.  They snort heroin together and then he takes pictures of her nude, sometimes in caves by the sea.  She tells me that she can handle it and for some reason I trust her.  I am beginning to feel love, but then maybe not.  I don’t know the sensation well and it is a wonder to me, like when I awake in a hospital with the humming and white enamel and try to get out of bed, but I can’t.

Maybe this is the first act of a French movie, where the girl ends up fucking a total stranger in a burned out apartment.  Why would I love her?  Don’t know.  Is it the way her legs fold at the knee?  They remind me of a sexual drawbridge and when she pulls her legs up under her arms they are structurally refined and inviting of passage.  She wants me to come to her and I do.  When we walk down the street she is by my side with her arm around my waist.  There is something else, but I don’t know what it is.  I only know it is there.  Although we have done nothing more than kiss and thrash around, she asks me to move into her place.

She lives in a dark house in a poor part of town where nothing is finished.  Her neighbor is a single mother with three kids.  The mother prostitutes herself to survive.  Her tricks come from a bar in a nearby alley.  Sometimes I drink there.  When we lie in bed, we can see the men come and go from a window at the foot of our bed.  The three kids are usually on the floor, sleeping with us, while the mother works.  We can hear them breathing in the heat, as the air presses down upon us, there in the little room, and we wait like an audience for something to happen…some of us can’t keep our eyes open, while others are alert…and we wait for the mother to come softly to the window and call for her children to come home.  Everything is fine and I watch the children move in silhouette as if they were cutouts made black by the blocked edge of candle light.

Soon enough, we decide to be lovers or at least give sex a try.  When the children go, we draw the curtain and make a kind of love known to statues.  Her vagina is dry and we join together like wood and nails.  I ask her if it’s me, and she says, “No, it’s my father.”  Now I understand and suddenly the arrogance of my ministry is upon me.  I believe I can save her.  Then she softly weeps and the tears collect and flow across my chest, eroding down through my skin and into my heart.  She is the Grand Canyon of my life.  Her damage is soon to be my lack of recovery: those sorrowful nights of silky hair and fatherly rape.

I take her to the jungle.  I have a job in a little Indian village and she is interested in anthropology.  It makes sense.  I want to leave the barrio overlooking the capital and find a new bed for us to share.  I know a place where we can live for nothing.  It is on a river that is part mirror and part waterfall and so we go in a light plane and we stay in the jungle for a few months, but we are kept apart by incest and in a way, it is all we have.  My words, my hands have no effect upon her and we are in a labyrinth of pensive, beautiful moments.

On rainy days I bow my head into her lap and we listen to the sound of water running off a thatched roof.  Our parrot is in the corner.  We found Felipe hardly breathing at the bottom of a tree.  The ants were on his red and blue feathers as he squirmed around.  She strokes my hair and slowly I go to sleep.  When I awake she is outside in the jungle.  I sit on the veranda, waiting for her to return.  I can hear her footsteps on the trail.  I can see her torch shining through the tall grass.  She has been down to the river for a swim.

We argue more and more and finally she says she must return.  When I take her to the airstrip, we understand that she cannot love with the kind of hope necessary to transform two lives into one.  Her heart is ash and her eyes are dead.  She is holy in the sun and tells me not to worry, to find someone else, someone who can love.  As she gets into the light plane I see her face in the widow.   Down the strip the plane rolls and the little Indian boys run along and then it lifts off, just clearing the tree line, and she is gone.

Please don’t worry she said, but in my nights I do worry.  I am regretful and the pain makes me feel alive.

The old hippie carried away in the jeep, my lover disappearing over the trees.  I never saw either one again.

What is our bearing in the night?  How can we find our way?  To be able to stand and walk and speak is a small thing, and it is an infinitesimal part of the stars.  Are we proud of the unfathomable?  The light is undefined, yet it shows our image and we are of the earth; our name for this mystery, this madness.

What is joy?  Is it a mask for pain?  Does everyone wear poison pearls?  I think they do.  We all fall toward tragedy and then we try to avoid it, but it is always too late, and for that I feel a rising in my heart.




9 thoughts on “What is Joy?

  1. You made me cry again, with this one. Your imagery, the strength of your words and the indelible pictures they create…so very much more real than my little ho-hum life. But…I can never stop reading what you write. Thank you. For the wake-up.


    1. Hello Judith,

      Thanks for your kind words. People who know are rare. I was talking with someone today and we decided that to be acutely aware is something that grows within a person. Early on we are more visceral, naive, but with time we become wise to our feelings, to the way the world breaks down around us. We are stuck here. Nothing to be done except laugh and cry, just like the phrase at Delphi: know thyself. It is a learning process and as long as we can stay alive, it is exciting. Too bad I didn’t follow “nothing in excess”. I’d be a lot better off today. Thanks. Duke


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