My instinctual idea of joy mimics the physicality of the word itself: a short burst, a dynamic syllable emerging from the mundane sentence around it, full of energy and brief color like a small dancer lifting her head and jumping in the air for pure love of movement. It’s akin to ecstasy, to giddy happiness. I find this version of joy in moments that overtake me, when it feels like everything is falling into place, like I’ve finally found my nook in the tableau of my life.
Some examples: leaning out a car window during my senior year of high school blasting Elton John while the sun set, crowding with my coworkers on a boat after a shift to watch the stars, standing in the pulsing light of a concert, knowing every word. In all these moments, I can picture myself from the outside, a romanticized character in the movie of my life. The script and the shot line up, everything is blissful and laden with meaning, with triumph, with brief ecstasy.
Inherent to these quick bursts of joy, however, is that they have little to do with me. They flow in at random moments, based on my ability to lose myself in a scene that feels out of the mundane. They’re moments where myself and my ideal life find a romantic union. Because of its fleeting, uncontrollable nature, this joy is harsh. It finds me, not the other way around, and my inability to control it is why I desire it, but I can’t maneuver my way into these situations when I’m feeling down, can’t tap into them in times of dullness or disillusionment.
So, especially now, when we’re all stuck inside with limited opportunities, how does one find joy? Is it possible to create it for yourself? Create is too strong a word; I don’t think you can generate emotions into your life, otherwise no one would ever experience anything unpleasant. But I do think it’s possible to embed joy in your life. To find a space in which it can grow, become something stoic and unchanging, a reprise rather than a reward.
While I have been trying to cultivate joy in my life over the last few months, the genesis of my belief in it comes from an afternoon I spent in a marsh off the coast of Maine, on an island called Little Cranberry where I work in the summers. The island is shaped like a ribeye — one side runs to a point where the bone would jut out — and much of the town lives crowded against the docks, giving the marsh that occupies much of the backside a wide berth.
I’ve never seen another person in the marsh, which is a shame because it's beautiful (although this very isolation is also why I enjoy it). It curls around an outcropping of pine trees; a crescent moon of still brown water and green grasses abutting the sea. At both tips, the wetlands meet the shore, and at high tides the lowest grasses are flooded by saltwater. It is this tepid bog that I return to again and again because it gives me a type of joy, built not out of fleeting situations but out of a desire to exist in the unfamiliar, to take a step out of my life and be alone.
I first visited the marsh with my mother during my preteen years. I’m not actually sure why I joined my mother on the excursion; this was a time in my life when I avoided familial activity at all costs, especially on the island where I had friends whose houses I could bike to, docks to jump off and homemade fudge to eat. But, for whatever reason, I set aside my book and set off, my chubby kid's palm nestled in my mother’s thin one.
By the time we got to the marsh, my legs were tired and my brain felt like it was congealing under heat so thick that even the ocean breeze couldn’t sweep it away. My shins were itchy from the grasses and covered in mud. I began to feel sorry I’d come, but because we were far from town and because it was worse to stand still and let my boots sink into the muck, I kept pushing forward.
My mother and I crossed the marshland and entered the little circle of pines, where we got lost and paused to listen for the ocean. Through the course of the journey, I began to feel cut off from the familiarity I enjoyed so thoroughly on the island. I visit Little Cranberry every summer, my oldest friendships were formed there and my family threads its way through the community. I have a place there.
But in the marsh, everything felt huge and unfamiliar — the felled pines, the gap of the fields, the horizon that stretched beyond the trees. I remember thinking that if I looked behind a tangle of upended roots, a dinosaur might appear, and the fear felt legitimate; I was inviting the unfamiliar in, to the point where even the surreal seemed possible. There is a freedom there, in moments of liberation from the trappings of my mind that I rely on every day to anchor my sense of the world. It was there that I found the joy of existing in the unfamiliar.
My mother and I arrived back home muddy and exhausted, but even as I showered and went hunting through the kitchen for a snack, I started ascribing significance to the event. It had been a moment of active choice — to join my mother, to step outside myself, to push through the discomfort. It’s small, and I’m sure there were many such childhood moments that I could latch onto, but this one was so confined to place, to the isolation of the marsh, and this anchoring to place provided a touchstone of joy I’ve returned to over the years.
I’m not recommending just getting out of your comfort zone, though I do think that’s a worthwhile exercise. I’m recommending finding a private physical place where you can spend time apart from whatever defines your life at the given moment. I have those places in Baltimore, those places in my hometown of Los Angeles, places where you can step outside your individual perspective and just be a part of an environment you have no control over because you’re unfamiliar or alienated from it in some way. There’s joy in that, in actively choosing to carry your life away from its source, even if it's only for a brief while.
This past summer, I walked the circumference of the island and paused at the marsh to watch the water swirl into the inlet as the tide came up. One of the pools is shaped like a heart, something I hadn’t noticed before. The indent of a deer’s rest was nestled in the wind-flattened field. There is something new and strange every time I visit. Each time I feel that quiet joy of expanding into a place I have no say over, of wrapping myself up in unfamiliar moments, not to consume and familiarize them, but to exist in quiet tandem.