Tending Joy at the End of the World

1. All our living is in the attempt. Wherever we turn we are greeted with an ending. We are standing on the edge of a collapse. One world ends and another begins.

2. A memory: in the summer we tread along the coastline, leaping from rock to rock, navigating its crevices with our bare feet. Our bodies sway against gravity. Arms outstretched. On one hand, our shoes hang from fingertips. On the other, the salted breeze drifts through wide-open fingers. In the laziness of the afternoon we sip frozen slushies and compare their colours on our tongues as they bleed into the creases of our lips. Petals of bougainvillea dance at our feet. The water ebbs and flows on the shore. Seagulls chase each other on the backdrop of a silky pink sky. In the future the sun lowers itself behind a wall. In the future there are the words painted: The End of the World. No Trespassing. In the future we never see the sun set. It just goes dark.

3. Let’s say we already know, that we have known for years. Let’s say predictions were made at a time when forever was imaginable, and then every year after that. In 1988 a biophysicist and biochemist named Dr. Jessica Tuchman Mathews laid forward a set of predictions. What will the end of the world begin to look like? Hotter temperatures. Shifting monsoons and rising sea levels. Enormous extinction of wildlife because nothing we know about evolution suggests they can adapt to such rapid change. How far into the future was she talking here? Before it was millions of years, now it’s decades. In the future we spend so much money and brainpower on exploring outer space but spend very little on our planet, how it works and how its inhabitants behave. In the future we spend less time in the deep ocean than on the surface of the Moon. In the future almost all have come true and more.

4. The arrival is subtle. Months are now synonymous with crises. Time is sandwiched between bushfires and protests. There is a nervous energy in every moment. One wrong move and this could be irreversible. I think it already is.

5. The world is ending. I do not have any other way to say this. Is there a need to? I am cautious of touch. Everyone I know has started to fill their homes with plants. If we can’t touch each other maybe we can tend to the air we breathe. There is a plant shortage. I wake to howling. I look up facts. Did you know that when young wolves are separated from their pack they howl and howl until they get a reply? I wake to numbers. Numbers too large to comprehend. To names caught in the mouths of the people—is anyone listening? The end of the world is a revolution.

6. When all this is over, we say. Will we know how to share space with a stranger? When all this is over, we say, we think, we dream. When all this is over—then what?

7. Tell me, where is the poetry?

8. I sit on the porch in my backyard eating Imperial mandarins. It is peak season for mandarins and I know this because the only time I leave my house is to go to the grocery store. As we go deeper into the year the weather becomes the topic of conversation in the morning. It is the only thing that changes. It is warmer than I remember and I wonder if a winter of blue skies is luck or a direct result of climate change. I try to believe the former but know the truth lies in the latter.

9. I sit cross-legged on the porch in my backyard and squish my thumb into the centre of the mandarin, peeling the skin apart. I play a game: if I peel it without breaking off any skin from the whole, something good will happen. And if I don’t? The world is ending anyway. Feeling the pith between the skin and flesh separating with every move, I take my time. I move slowly, gently lifting the white veins off its soft flesh before popping a segment in my mouth. Gentle in the way the sun warms my skin, my toes wriggling, the air falling between each digit.

10. All my moments have led me here. I am here in this backyard of this house in this time because of loss. Because of heartbreak. Because of the deep dive nature of young love. Of the almost drowning. Of the barely making it back to shore. And it is here where I place a piece of mandarin in my mouth. Here where I crush the last barrier of its skin with my teeth. Here where I taste the sweetness. Feel the erosion on my tongue. Spit the seed. There is joy in this. In the skin. In the pith. In the seed. In this crisis that has allowed me the privilege to carve my own time and lie in it.

11. Joy is harder to place than other feelings.

12. In her 2013 essay ‘Joy’ in the New York Review of Books, Zadie Smith observes that pleasure tends to mimic joy in minor ways. Almost but not quite. And because of this, we think of joy as pleasure intensified: ‘arrived at by the same road—you simply have to go a little further down the track.’ But there is a difference and perhaps this difference lies in the way we speak about pleasure and the way we speak about joy. Pleasure is owned, but joy? Joy is embodied. Smith explains: ‘I “have” pleasure, it is a feeling I want to experience and own… But on that dance floor I was joy, or a small piece of joy, with all those other hundreds of people who were also part of joy.’

13. Perhaps it is no coincidence that the act of joy is to rejoice, and that the word ‘rejoice’ brings to the surface a spiritual meaning. A bodily experience. I am reminded of the way bodies move in a church. The way they rejoice and the rejoicing becoming bigger than who they are. Bigger than the people or the church. As she ends the essay, Smith shares a final thought: ‘The thing no one tells you about joy is that it has very little real pleasure in it. And if it hadn’t happened at all, at least once, how would we live?’

14. Imagine a terror so strange it must have been joy.

15. How many times have I felt pure, unfiltered joy? Was that moment, heartbroken in my backyard eating mandarins with the sun, joy? I couldn’t say. Maybe that is the point. To not be able to place your finger on it because it simultaneously exists within and outside of us. Because of its etherealness. I wonder, how does one sit with it? And more importantly, as we are on the precipice of the unknown, how does one tend to it?

16. In the quiet I become attuned to noticing the moment when someone realises their shoelaces have come undone. It is specific. When a loose lace flaps in the wind, entering their sphere of attention, caught in the corner of their eye. When they feel the soft flip of the aglet landing on their shoe. This noticing started to happen a lot: as I watch outwards from my window, on walks, in line at the grocery store. The way they stop and look side to side before crouching down, aware they are part of the pedestrian traffic (part of a whole) and to stop is to disrupt flow. There is something vulnerable in this act. I almost always look away before shamelessly returning my gaze. Once, I stop to watch an elderly man put his left foot on a nearby bench. His movements are slow. His fingers hold the laces, rabbit ears and then a knot. An innocence that, when transferred to adulthood, doesn’t quite fit right. Too much has happened in between. The years.

17. I am comforted by the fact that we all have to stop in our step to tie our shoelaces. By the fact that I once saw a stranger chase another stranger just to tell them their shoelaces were undone. Crisis averted. How we exist outside of ourselves for a moment, for another person we momentarily share the same air with, so they don’t accidentally trip and chip their front tooth. Crisis averted. How we do this for one another all the time. I am comforted by this smallest act of care that blooms into joy.

18. On long walks I listen to a podcast called On Being with Krista Tippett. At a time of deep discomfort, I listen to her conversation with Ross Gay about joy. I hear Ross Gay say, ‘Joy has nothing to do with ease and everything to do with the fact that we are all going to die.’ I hold on to this. It is a kind of hoping. To be able to share it all. Loss. Sorrow. Despair. Death. If loss is a fundamental truth of our existence then so must be joy, so must be the understanding that joy is not turning a blind eye to terror but acknowledging it. To sit beside it. As she recalls a moment of joy, Zadie Smith writes: ‘To sit on a high wall, dizzy with joy, and think nothing of breaking your ankles.’

19. The body is lonely. I reach out and a stranger recoils. We have become singular beings. Somebody stands too close and I hold my breath. I take a step back. I watch my friends laugh on screens with a one second delay, their laughter lingering after their mouths have moved on. At first, we are unsure how to act, where to place the device, what part of ourselves to show. Now it is an extension of our bodies. I touch my mother’s face on a screen the size of my hand. I watch her cook and hear the sizzle of vegetables landing in oil, the clanging of spatula on pan, as if I were back home sitting on a stool with my knee up, a small mountain of sunflower seeds growing on the bench in front of me. It is almost the same except every now and then she says, Come home. And I am reminded. The distance. The borders. I used to flinch at the sound of my phone ringing, but now I race to it. I click the green circle and hold it close. This is the closest I have got to being with a beloved.

20. In her Meanjin essay ‘Writing the Apocalypse’, Lucy Treloar takes a moment to grieve the disappearance and reappearance of bats. She mourns, ‘All my wondering is edged in grief.’ I carry this with me for days. Yes. All my joy is edged in grief.

21. There is a little-known fact that in Chinese culture, the number four is associated with death, but when doubled to make eight becomes joy.

22. What does this say except the obvious? That, perhaps, we have always known. How else than to be joyful in this time of endings?

23. As I tend to my heartbreak, I find out that a friend is also going through a breaking of his own. When we realise that we are each heading towards our own unknown, we lean into each other completely. Our friendship was founded a few years back on the handful of days we spent together in a European city as a friend-of-a-friend. Now we place our grief out in the distance between us and mourn the futures we had. Now we share the weight of our unravelling. Now we sit at the ground of the high wall and tend to our broken ankles. How else to look at this except as the joining of, what Gay calls, our wildernesses. How else? How else?

24. It is difficult to think of joy without thinking of poetry.

25. How many times have I found myself devastated and reaching for poetry? Most recently, Ocean Vuong’s poem ‘Not Even This’:

‘When they zipped my mother in a body bag I whispered: Rose, get out of there. / Your plants are dying. / Enough is enough. / Body, doorway that you are, be more than what I’ll pass through. / Stillness. That’s what it was. / The man in the field in the red sweater, he was so still he became, somehow, / more true, like a knife wound in a landscape painting. / Like him, I caved. / I caved and decided it will be joy from now on. Then everything opened. The / lights blazed around me into a white weather / and I was lifted, wet and bloody, out of my mother, screaming / and enough.’

26. Where does one begin? I am drunk and spilling. At the end of every impulse there it is, waiting. How do I explain it?

27. We learn about the body through dissection. Let us dissect this.

28. In the body of a poem is a wilderness. The wet and untamed. If it were a shape, it would have no lines. Would this still be a shape? The body of a poem holds space for what has not been fully formed or imagined. (How we do not know joy until the opposite is past our imagination). It turns, breathes, becomes the language of knowing.

29. Through a screen, I ask a writer, what have you been writing? They tell me they have only been writing poetry during this time. Why? I ask. They say: our worlds have shrunk. We are now just our own bodies looking in. I am trying to reach for something that cannot be expressed in any other way.

30. I remember being sixteen. Sixteen and trying to find a way to untie the knot in my chest. Everything was an ending. How long it felt to be trapped in that kind of limbo. How I started to write poems in a pocket-sized notebook. How it felt like muscle memory, as if my body had always known what to reach for. In this way, poetry became the vehicle to my growth. Now, twenty-five and still reaching.

31. The poem is so non-essential, it becomes essential.

32. In her essay ‘Poetry Is Not A Luxury’, Audre Lorde writes, ‘Poetry is not only the dream and vision; it is the skeleton architecture of our lives. It lays the foundations for a future of change, a bridge across our fears of what has never been before.’ I pick up the pen and ask myself: what future are we trying to build? How many rooms? Where does the bridge take us?

33. Once, in the middle of the night, I confessed to an ex-love that I found it hard to exist outside of myself. He didn’t understand what I meant and I couldn’t find the words to explain it then. Let me try to explain it now. I find it hard to exist outside of myself which is why I write. Poetry as a limb—another way of extending, of reaching in and then pulling the wilderness out of my body. To have this occupy the space between me and another being, me and my past-selves, me and the mandarin. To be the bridge, and to have the walk over it be joy.

34. Poetry, like joy, allows space for something that cannot be quantified. Unlike prose and unlike pleasure, it functions outside economics. Instead it asks for an attentiveness to the body, to the environment, to each other.

35. At the end of winter, my housemate prunes the rose bushes in our front yard. They have grown long and wild, stretching upwards towards the sun. Two months later, I find myself staring out the window at a young couple who has stopped in front of our house. They stand still on a path made for movement. Their gaze is elsewhere. From the inside, I track their line of sight and find it landing on a single rose that has blossomed. A red that fills my vision.

36. As I return to the mandarin, I wonder: was tending to the mandarin a way of tending to myself? A reminder that I, too, am made of soft flesh and sweetness and seeds that are difficult to swallow.

37. In Salt, Nayyirah Waheed writes: ‘i don’t pay attention to the / world ending. / it has ended for me / many times / and began again in the morning.’

38. Every poem I write feels like a becoming. Every joy, a rebirth. There are memories in my body, singing.

39. The world is ending but the end is difficult to see. Spring arrives early to the party, bringing with it a plate of warmth. In the bathroom the Christmas cactus blooms three flowers in the lowest of light. I am told this is the first time it’s bloomed in three years. This is to say: it is so far from where it is from and yet is it just doing all that it knows how to do.

40. The world is ending and joy tends to me.