This is not, broadly speaking, a joyful era.
Americans are at each other’s throats, for not-good-enough reasons. The Supreme Court is deadlocked. Congress is craven and paralyzed.
Our choices for president are sociopathic, socialist or socially awkward. Half the electorate is more interested in finding identity in a tribe than in picking someone responsible to lead the free world.
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Globalism is putting us all out of jobs, and global warming is baking the planet. It is, it would seem, the worst of times.
But then, less broadly, there are these moments.
John Prine is on tour; last week, he played in Sacramento. At 69, he has spent the last 15 years battling cancer. He has lost a piece of his neck and part of his tongue, and in 2013, doctors discovered a spot on his left lung.
Does that sound depressing? It wasn’t.
He played like a virtuoso, in a sharp suit and tie, with old friends, and dedicated a beautiful song to his late brother, a Chicago cop who retired to the Sierra Nevada foothills in the late 1990s and died in 2012 of liver cancer.
At one point, Prine danced a little jig across the stage, a portly gent with a guitar whistling past the graveyard. His sister-in-law, sitting near my husband and me at the back of the house, whooped and applauded.
It wasn’t just a good show. It was breathtaking, and we had to think hard to remember the last time we’d felt that uplifted, by anyone.
Later, at home, there was the recording of that night’s NBA matchup between the Golden State Warriors and the Oklahoma City Thunder, the one where Steph Curry scored 15 straight points in less than two minutes, bringing new meaning to the word “dazzling.”
“Look!” my husband kept saying as I got ready for bed. “Look at him! He’s amazing!” And he was, when I sleepily, finally, paid attention.
That grace. That grin. That grit: Curry’s ankles have been injured so many times, it’s a wonder he can walk, let alone pull professional basketball victories out of thin air, like a magician. The ball whooshed through the hoop again and again and again while Curry romped and chuckled, a moment undiminished by the fact that his team’s season is now, a week later, on the verge of ending.
“Great joy” was how Warriors Coach Steve Kerr described his response to Curry’s performance that evening. Off camera, though that joy turned out to be fleeting, you could almost hear the sportswriters straining not to reply, amen.
“Joy” is one of those words people tend not to use lightly. I, for example, am not an unhappy person, but until recently, I could count on one hand the times I’d felt the deep well-being that I associate with that word.
The births of my children, our oldest daughter’s wedding, our own wedding, a morning in Rome once, that about does it. Lately, however, I’ve found myself lowering the threshold.
Maybe it’s age. Maybe it’s the Internet. Maybe it’s desperation. But between the cracks of all the bad news, joy seems to be stepping up far more than it used to.
It was there on the sidewalk the other night as I walked in the warm evening air to meet my husband, and outside my car window last weekend as we drove through the emerald light of the Delta.
It was in the stall at the farmers market that sold me a pound of perfect cherries on Saturday morning, and next to me on the couch Sunday night as we watched “Game of Thrones” with old friends.
And I’m pretty sure I’m not the only one lowering the bar, joywise. What else could explain the resurgence of adult leagues for childhood games such as dodgeball? Or that “Keanu” movie starring a kitten?
Say what you will about the psyche of the American public, that woman knew joy when she saw it, and she relished it.
That millions of others relish these things too (including Chewbacca himself, if a YouTube Star Wars channel episode is any indication) undercuts the conventional wisdom that we want to be fractured. As “individual” as we claim to be, it also is in our DNA to be collective.
A big part of us yearns to cheer together for the graceful athlete, to applaud the virtuoso, to whistle past the graveyard in unison. There’s more to life than being used by Donald Trump, or scolded by Bernie Sanders or begged by Bill Clinton to see past the guardedness of the wife who spent her life making the trains run while he got to be the fun one.
There’s also joy. And I wish we would let it speak more broadly. If we were to knock off the tribal drumming, it might tell us that this, like so many other difficult eras, is also in some ways the best of times.