it’s the little joys that sometimes carry us…
in which, after a seven-week summer’s sabbatical, our little scribe shuffles back to the table, ferrying a tall stack of books, and the hope of something to say….
well, good morning. i promised it wouldn’t be long, and it wasn’t. really. oh, i’ll admit to all but sitting on my typing hands the first few fridays, an itch to write that nearly needed ointment to make it go away. but i held on, and soon enough, savored the quiet. found plenty to fill the days. in the weeks i’ve been away, tucked behind the virtual monastery walls, i’ve been witness to the scattering of ashes of a woman we loved, i’ve flown across the country, had both my boys under this old roof for one 36-hour slice of heavenliness, cheered on the now dubbed TriathlonMan (aka former architecture critic) not once but twice as he gleefully crossed the finish line (well, he was gleeful the first time, and in last sunday’s 97-degree heat “gleeful” would be the last adjective i’d reach for), and said too many tearful goodbyes at airports and college dorms.
so here we are. not unlike the back-to-school rhythms of clean underwear and sharpened pencils, ready to dive back in. what a blessing that the holiest of holy days are upon us, just as the light takes on its amber molasses glow. and the blood in my veins percolates with its usual seasonal vivacity (i am autumn’s child, to be sure).
one of the truths of the summer — and of this moment — is that i often feel crushed by the news of the world around me. these last few weeks and days offer no reprieve. many a night i’ve lay awake imagining how it is to be sardined in a hangar in qatar with no water, no food, and sunlight beating down, all of it underscored with unchartable fear. and the cries of hungry babies all around. and now we’ve got a lone star state filled with deputized vigilantes racing around to turn in their already broken neighbors. let he who is without sin cast the first stone.
and so i was particularly struck when i stumbled on an essay this week from maria popova, she of brain pickings wonderment, an essay in which she writes of hermann hesse’s belief in little joys. i seem to gather proponents of littleness — dorothy day and her little courages, and now hesse and his little joys. anyway, i ran to the library — the candy counter equivalent for those who binge on poetries and paragraphs — and checked me out some hesse (german-swiss poet, painter, novelist; author of siddhartha*), specifically his collection, translated into english in 1974, titled my belief: essays on life and art.
hesse writes, in his 1905 essay “on little joys”:
Great masses of people these days live out their lives in a dull and loveless stupor. Sensitive persons find our inartistic manner of existence oppressive and painful, and they withdraw from sight… I believe what we lack is joy. The ardor that a heightened awareness imparts to life, the conception of life as a happy thing, as a festival… But the high value put upon every minute of time, the idea of hurry-hurry as the most important objective of living, is unquestionably the most dangerous enemy of joy…
Our ways of enjoying ourselves are hardly less irritating and nerve-racking than the pressure of our work. “As much as possible, as fast as possible” is the motto. And so there is more and more entertainment and less and less joy… This morbid pursuit of enjoyment [is] spurred on by constant dissatisfaction and yet perpetually satiated.
I would simply like to reclaim an old and, alas, quite unfashionable private formula: … Do not overlook the little joys!
These little joys … are so inconspicuous and scattered so liberally throughout our daily lives that the dull minds of countless workers hardly notice them. They are not outstanding, they are not advertised, they cost no money!Hermann Hesse, “On Little Joys” from My Belief: Essays on Life and Art
he echoes annie dillard, another of my pantheon of “little” saints, she who preaches like no other on the sacred art of paying attention, she who indelibly wrote:
The world is fairly studded and strewn with pennies cast broadside from a generous hand. But — and this is the point — who gets excited by a mere penny?
It is dire poverty indeed when a man is so malnourished and fatigued that he won’t stoop to pick up a penny. But if you cultivate a healthy poverty and simplicity, so that finding a penny will literally make your day, then, since the world is in fact planted in pennies, you have with your poverty bought a lifetime of days. It is that simple.Annie Dillard, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek
keep your eyes — nay, your whole soul — open is her point. and hesse follows suit. leaving little to chance, hesse points to the particulars, and prescribes thusly:
Just try it once — a tree, or at least a considerable section of sky, is to be seen anywhere. It does not even have to be blue sky; in some way or another the light of the sun always makes itself felt. Accustom yourself every morning to look for a moment at the sky and suddenly you will be aware of the air around you, the scent of morning freshness that is bestowed on you between sleep and labor. You will find every day that the gable of every house has its own particular look, its own special lighting. Pay it some heed if you will have for the rest of the day a remnant of satisfaction and a touch of coexistence with nature. Gradually and without effort the eye trains itself to transmit many small delights, to contemplate nature and the city streets, to appreciate the inexhaustible fun of daily life. From there on to the fully trained artistic eye is the smaller half of the journey; the principal thing is the beginning, the opening of the eyes.
yet another wise person i read this week, yuriko saito, a professor of philosophy at the rhode island school of design, calls the little joys “everyday aesthetics,” and defines them as “tiny, perfect things.” it’s the art of the ordinary, and the ordinary is where we live, those of us whose days are mapped by carpools and grocery trips and scrubbing out the bathroom sinks.
the world — even in its brokenness — is filled with tiny, perfect things. the imperative is that we keep close watch. God gave us input pipes — eyes, ears, nose, skin, tastebud. we are meant to notice. invited to, anyway. we dwell in holy kaleidoscope. it twists and turns and sways and dapples minute by minute, season upon season.
and so my days take on a hopscotch paradigm: i skip and hop from little joy to little joy, and hold on tight to those wisps of poesy that fall across my path. i mosey the alley, where wild things bloom and sway, and wander through my garden, clippers in hand, snipping stems for tiny bouquets i tuck all around the house, especially on the windowsills, a perch made for paying outward glance. i tiptoe down the brick walk to my summer porch, and keep watch from behind the screens where the birds take no notice, and carry on their birdlike ways as if i’ve morphed into just another leaf or willow frond and become unseen, no longer alien, no longer brake to their flutterings and chatter. i curl in my reading nook, keeping watch on the world passing by, on the pages i turn.
i keep a silence. a holy silence. the sort from which my prayers take flight endlessly, eternally. i pray for this world which too many days seems to be crumbling. i pray for lives i will never know. but i imagine. and my empathies carry me to faraway deserts, to tarmacs and hotlines where the desperation rises by the hour.
i’m surely not saying that the little joys will mend the brokenness. that takes a whole nother level of dedication and muscle moving. all i’m saying is that if we can fix our gaze on even the occasional tiny, perfect thing, we might stave off the paralysis that comes with the avalanche of awful news. we might gather up shards of beautiful, shards of little joy, and find the oomph to not stay stuck, the oomph to make the blessed most of these fine breaths left in us as we march through the bracketed hours of our days.
for this i pray.
what might be the little joys, the tiny perfect things that carry you through the day, even when the darkness comes?
*starting a new cumulative reading list, and first up, siddhartha, hesse’s 1920 novel which delves deep into hinduism, a religion about which i know not enough….it’s described as the “absolutely amazing and engrossing tale of one man’s journey to find that all-elusive idea of enlightenment.” enlightenment, here i come.….
Oh, how I’ve missed pulling up a chair! Thank you. (My constant joy, day and night, is WWOZ, New Orleans public radio, and self-proclaimed “Guardian of the Groove.”)
hullo gorgeous!!!! i know one of my best best friends listens to NOLA jazz wherever she is, and it must be WWOZ. i am going to find myself a listen.
i’m sure you’ve heard our friends at KC are riding a tidal wave of COVID spikes. egad. my junior told me he’s 99-percent sure he’s going to get it. yikes.
Hello to you, lovely! Oh, this radio station is SO wonderful. Maybe heavy on the trad jazz for some, but the hosts all feature their own record collections, from blues to samba to funk. I’m a member and a fan and can’t get enough.
The KC numbers are SO discouraging after a year of diligent testing and smart protocol. Yeah, my junior feels the same way, now limited to Knox County. We are headed to Ohio in a few hours, visiting my parents, and hoped Sam could join us. Maybe just a Mt Vernon lunch.
My husband has a classroom of 37 tweens and he’s pretty sure it’s only a matter to time. My senior Stella at Whitney Young could be next, as well. I’m the only safe hermit, happily working on my screened-in porch, Sarah Vaughan singing the in background.
bless your heart, sweetheart, and all those huddled in classrooms. safe travels to the buckeye and back. praying for all good health. xoxoxoxoxo
SO glad you are back! “the blood in my veins percolates with its usual seasonal vivacity (i am autumn’s child, to be sure).” Me, too!
Little joys: my niece posts pictures and videos once a day or more on FB – giving me insight to her little joys as mama of two adorable girls – 5 months and 21 months. 💕
the kindness of those who’ve sent a note these past few weeks, saying they missed the chair, it’s been deeply touching, for this writer without a banner under which to write anymore. the tiny circle we’ve knitted here is a blessed thing. and keeps me afloat more certainly than most other spokes in my life.
love that your tiny perfect things come in the form of posts. i know you are not alone in that department. for now i only imagine the tiny dimpled fists that might some day be mine to squeeze. five months is just around the bend from one of my all-time favorite benchmarks: six months, when laughter comes…..
happy autumn, autumn girl. xox
One of my little joys is pulling up a chair every Friday morning, and I am so glad you’re back!!! l purposely did not send a note saying I missed you because I didn’t want you to feel PRESSURED. I hope it is a little joy for you to be back writing these Friday morning missives 🙂
ah, you know me well! i admit to sort of wince-gulping a couple times, feeling guilty for taking a wee bit of rejuvenation time. it IS a little joy, a sweet joy, to be back. long as i think i might have even a tiny something worth saying. don’t want to add to noise. too much of that already. xoxox
hug across the table!
It is a delight to have you back and your flowers and thoughts and little joys are filling my heart. Thank you for sharing.
thank you, dear SS. hope you’ve had a lovely summer and the autumn’s not come too soon……
Hermann Hesse is wonderful. I’ve never read Siddartha, but my commonplace book contains several quotes drawn from its pages. I look forward to hearing what new treasures you’ll discover as you delve deeper into Hesse’s work! Happy reading, and welcome back!! I’ve missed you. xoxoxo
I started it last night and plan on turning pages all through the afternoon’s rain. Still trying to inhale as much as I can before the edits drop in my lap. Can’t wait to see if my extractions from Siddhartha match yours….
here are but two of the lines i had to mark with scraps of paper as bookmarks because i couldn’t pull out a pen in a library copy of Siddhartha:
“Most people  are like a falling leaf as it twists and turns its way through the air, lurches and tumbles to the ground. Others though—very few—are like stars set on a fixed course; no wind can reach them, and they carry their law and their path within them.” (p. 62)
“You heard the bird singing in your breast and followed it!” (p. 82)
a friend i love was asking about rosh hashanah, the jewish new year. his wife found out, from one of those home DNA tests, that she’s a whole lot ashkenazi from eastern europe. so i’ve been sending him little notes on the holiness of the new year, and the ways it’s observed.
on the quiet morning of the day that will bring us the start of the new year, under the new moon that will rise, i am laying this at the table, from a few years back. the passage on prayer from abraham joshua heschel is a passage worth reading every day.