Hushed by the woods, I tiptoed my way down the narrow trail, keen to every rustle in the thickets. Birds no longer tweeted here. The trees were too profuse for their calls. Only the leaves sighed in rapt unknowable languages, murmuring amongst themselves a poetry I couldn’t understand. And every once in a while, when I turned a corner or climbed another set of stone steps I heard a gurgling — the ancient song of water burbling over rocks. But of the stream itself there was no visible sign.
Something deep within me bubbled up at the sound of that hidden rivulet: an emotion that identified with the musicality of fluid meeting solid; a feeling of instant, tender, ephemeral joy which wanted to burst from my pores to meet its ebullient twin. I wasn’t hunting for this state of mind; I hadn’t even noticed it had gone missing. But, the minute joy spread through my body I knew its absence had affected the way I moved through the world. I began to wonder when and how I had lost it, and whether I could actively nurture this joy as a perpetual wellspring of sustenance.
“What gives me joy,” I wondered, meandering between the dense fern vegetation. Thick, furry trunks of elms and alders closed out the sun, leaving the understory in shades of black and topaz. And, I perceived that this dance of shadows delighted me. A branch of maidenhair trembled forward to graze my knee. I stooped down to examine its filigreed delicacy and realized that this architecture also delighted. A caterpillar hobbled across a thread flung between two shrubs; a moment before I had not observed the filament, yet now as the creature performed its high-wire act I couldn’t unsee it. “What serendipity,” I murmured. By chance the caterpillar and I had met at a time when its journey allowed me to witness nature’s inevitable interrelationship.
The more incidents I stopped to savor, the wider became my scope of delights. I didn’t make headway on my hike, but what did that matter? Every fount of glee led to another, until I was lost in a landscape of ecstasy. “Could it be,” I mused, “that the key to maintaining joy was to pursue it? To actively contemplate where and how I might discover sources of it?” It was a practice; it was work I had to be willing to do. Like keeping a gratitude journal or reciting bedtime prayers, this took investment and could too easily progress into a chore — one readily dropped for more urgent battles.
Outside of forest and garden, I caught myself reluctant to seek out delight. What would people think of me cackling over a pigeon that had entered a train compartment as if it meant to ride downtown? Was it weird that I was amused by the uneven patterned brick facade on the highway? What did it say about me that I could be captivated by the flawed graphic of a digital walk sign or fall in love with a booming laugh in a quiet restaurant? So often it felt like the capacity for exuberance was relegated to the youngest of children. They were allowed to bellow out songs while waiting in line; grown-ups smiled indulgently at their nonsensical conversations and afforded them room on the sidewalk to dance. A euphoric adult implied a fool, a delinquent, or someone unhinged. Despite this, could I hopscotch my way down eighth street?
I found it easy to detect joy when the universe worked alongside my ego. Harder to train myself for its existence when I’d missed my bus in the rain, suffered illness or injury, endured rejection and unkindness. In the middle of a harsh week I doubted it was possible to locate delight. Yet, in that instance, someone passed by and said, “Great sunset isn’t it?” It was. I couldn’t deny that glimpse of fiery sky in between buildings made my innards effervesce the same way the prattling stream had done. Alongside my sadness, in the ugliness of my discomfort, I had to acknowledge that kernel of joy. And it felt wrong — as if the two shouldn’t prevail side by side. Yet, they do. I don’t want to forget amid mourning loss and grieving over displacement to take notice of the beauty that still incites pleasure. Because when I stop paying attention, when I don’t search for and admit what enthralls me, I won’t even see that it’s gone.
At the end of my trek there was a waterfall. Not the tallest or the largest. It was a double cascade framed by mossy rock and green saplings, which poured into the now revealed creek. It was a jewel. I had the urge to share the vision with another person; to wish there was someone next to me I could nudge and whisper, “Look! Look! Do you see what I see? Do you love it the way I love it?” I remembered this when the stranger commented on the sunset. It’s something I don’t do often enough. I’m more likely to cling to my private joys like hoarded treasure, cynical anyone else will participate in my passions. But, perhaps, by bearing witness to my ledger of delights I can make space for more. Maybe, by broadcasting my joys I can grow in the discipline of watching for them as through lines in my life. Perhaps, by giving my joys publicity they can be a stream I return to again and again. Maybe, in the act of joining my delight to that of others, I can find the truest connections.
You don’t need a car to explore Columbia River Gorge, land of Sahaptin and Chinookan speakers in Oregon. Try biking along the Columbia River Highway State Trail. Or take the Columbia River Gorge Express shuttle to one of the many scenic hikes.
What is bringing you joy?