The mountains are white with snow this morning, this weather they call Blackberry Winter. Snowflakes as ash-gray as the air twist in the cold wind; last week, the first of the lightning bugs were in their place. I wonder what happened to them. The frogs have ducked back beneath the mud. A pileated woodpecker dives from the locust grove up the hill towards the taller trees beyond, crying as he flies. Our new dog, Theo, stops, his body quivering with attention. Theo is not a creature of despair. Despair is less to him than an empty paper bag, a meaningless smell, easily discarded.
I’m mystified, I confess. I’ve spent years cultivating the habit of despair. I can’t imagine life without it. What would it be like, that joy without ceasing, that unending hymn, that Alleluia? After all, there are smoky, subtle flavors to my despair, complicated back alleys and hidden paths, gently beckoning doorways. I’m known there, and even respected. Happiness, on the other hand, is like no place. It’s like this tremulous spring, a season of blooming trees and lightning bugs, where at any moment things will return to normal. Happiness is a season that doesn’t make sense. Theo is clearly unmoved by this, these larger, subtler, implications. He just enjoys the warm mud, the opportunity to leap towards glowing things in the dark.
Every Sunday in Easter, the Season that begins with Easter Sunday and continues for fifty days until Pentecost, the choir (a.k.a., the Joyful Noisemakers) welcomes us into worship, singing Alleluia, written by Philip Hayes nearly four hundred years ago. One of our members, first seeing the music, commented, “Well, this will be easy to learn. All you have to do is sing Alleluia – you’ll never forget the words!” And it’s true. Alleluia, alleluia. The words are the easy part.
What’s hard, as it happens, is unceasing joy. Gratitude has its limits. Laughter has to pause for air, or it will cramp your side like buckshot. We’re not cut out for joy, it seems. Sadness comes in cycles, grief in stages; despair grows like moss over the stable stone. Happiness, on the other hand, is swift; it comes suddenly, and leaves through the same mysterious door. We can cultivate favorable conditions for happiness; we can invite it in. But we can’t know when it will show, or how long it will stay.
Many days you have lingered, around my cabin door; oh, hard times, come again no more.
One morning, some years ago now, I was making one of many sporadic attempts to learn more about the nature of God. These attempts, I’ll admit, aren’t much driven by intellectual curiosity. They’re driven instead by plain old discomfort, ordinary malaise that comes again and again, what passes for despair absent crisis, the voice that insists, “This is not the life I wanted.”
This particular attempt involved me sitting still in a quiet room, staring hard at a flickering candle, asking for something that I couldn’t, and can’t, quite define. The cat seemed to respect what I was up to; which is to say, she didn’t wake up. The dogs, on the other hand, woke up, and they were delighted.
This is what the dogs knew: that there was, suddenly and mysteriously, a lap, my lap, where it had not been before. They were beside themselves. Absurdly, embarrassingly delighted, the dogs wriggled and twisted with complete abandon, noses burying themselves in my armpits and crotch, their tongues licking my suddenly tongue-level cheek, their bodies a warm blur of unattached hairs and liver-scented breath. I tried to keep a blank mind. Let the thoughts fly away, I thought, as I shoved first one dog, then the other, as far away as I could push them. God, just send me a sign, I breathed, as they returned, more joyful than ever. Please, I prayed, as I toppled over, help me understand. As the timer went off to mark the end of the session, I was buried beneath in a hot mess of dog belly, wet with dog slobber. Thy will, I begged, be done.
I’ve never, ever, in the furthermost stretches of my imagination, conceived of the kind of love those dogs showed me that morning. My love always has conditions. There are lots of conditions, but one of the main ones is that I’m not pushed away; that I’m wanted. Dogs don’t have that condition, and neither, I’m convinced, does God. Theo, all puppy attention and delight, doesn’t care whether or not I’m good enough. Theo just adores me, to no apparent purpose and for no apparent cause, a love much deeper than reason can allow.
I’m free to cultivate despair, and I’m sure I’ll continue to do so; but that’s not a condition either. Some days, you sing alleluia and you mean it. Other days, you just sing, and see what happens.