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Reasons to Be Cheerful

I know full well I am irredeemably squeaky, the last of a dying breed of Pollyannas. I don’t care. I know all about the bitter and the brutal, the passing fancy, the soul-castrating irony that passes for so much of our humor. I want something sweeter, something that lasts.

The other night I was at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center watching the spectacular manipulations of the new ballet Morphoses. I was torn between sadness that my ballet-class days are long in my past and wonder that I still feel the movement in my muscles, as if years of practice had fossilized inside me.

It felt like a gift, this sense of remembered kinesis. Later I wondered if that would always be the case: that no matter how old and possibly infirm I might become, I would both watch and feel dance at the same time.

I began to wonder what else I would never have to give up, no matter how old I become. I could see this trajectory might lead to that lousy I-am-all-alone-in-this-world insomnia that is the raison d’etre for Valerian. I was afraid that everything I’d think up would be something I’d eventually have to give up.

But there are things that last. My short, solid list emerged pretty quickly. Only seven items, but that’s OK. Seven is a holy number.

Things I Never Want To Give Up

1. Reading poetry

I confess, it was first on my list. Someday I may be so old there will be nobody left who’ll want to listen. On the other hand, most of my friends don’t want to listen to me read poetry now, so it won’t really matter then. In the meantime, there is nothing with less cholesterol and more flavor than a mouthful of well-made words.

2. Using My Body

While there may come a time I am too old to stand on my head, there’s also this: Galway Kinnell writes in a poem about an old man receiving a massage. “How could anyone willingly leave a world where they touch you all over your body?” I still marvel at bodies. We have sexualized them to such a point that it’s hard to say anything without being misinterpreted—which is a shame because it narrows the pleasure of simply being in one’s body. I’ll never outgrow loving the feeling of exhilaration that washes over the body after exertion. It’s as though the usual disconnect between the mind and body gets bridged and suddenly it becomes clear how the skin is no less a wizard than the brain, or the hand a less reliable navigator than the eyes.

3. Laughing

Belly laughing, actually. Laughter is cheaper than therapy, but not everybody laughs well or often enough. Like sex, it is an underrated healer. And there isn’t much that’s more intimate than the language of laughter or the wacky lexicon of family jokes—all of which I have been sworn to secrecy not to reveal, although certain readers might recall the Naughty Chair, the Relationship Rug or even Guadeloupe.

4. Writing

I have never known what it is about writing I love so much. Part of it is physical: I love the feeling of keys under my fingers. I love the shadowy line of my Zebra .05 lead mechanical pencil. There is something satisfying about leaving one’s mark, however ephemerally. But certainly part of the joy in writing is that it closes me off completely from everything and everyone else. I am immured when I write, while the playful gremlin of imagination holds total sway over me. As a kid it was the best way to get away from family kvetching and turmoil, even if I was in the middle of the living room.

5. Cooking For and Eating With Loved Ones

I’ve probably read too much M.F.K. Fisher for my own good. But if I had my way, all meals would be long, slow, conversational and tasty. And preferably eaten in the south of France. But being a realist, or at least, trying my best to be one, I can’t deny that all meals cooked for or eaten with the people I love have a sacramental quality to them. No wonder feasting is such an essential component of religious life. One of the best ways we get to know each other is in the breaking of the bread.

6. Bathing

If I were a turtle, my shell would be a claw-foot tub. I’m not sure there is much that a bath can’t ease. People get this idea that bathing is about luxury. Really, it’s about utility. You can accomplish so much in the tub it’s a wonder Franklin-Covey doesn’t have hints in their planners about how bathing can enhance productivity. Of course, you have to be honest about what you accomplish in the bathtub. You can’t pay bills, for example. It’s not a good idea to talk on the phone. But you can read books, sip wine, listen to music, talk to your kids as they sit on the edge or dip the cat’s tail in the water as he sits on the edge. And if your tub is big enough, you bathe a deux and double what you accomplish. Best of all, we never outgrow the need to get clean.

7. Singing in Church

Weird, probably. But it was as a kid in church singing the flowery words of 19th-century hymns or the spare words of early plainsong that I learned about rhythm and language. Singing hymns is the church’s version of yoga: The breath is the heart of it. And there is something vulnerable and rich about hearing the voices around you—shy or tuneless, mellowed or confident, young or shaky—joining together as if they wanted to prove the truth of what the poet Richard Wilbur said, that we are “obscurely, but most surely called to praise.”

—Jo Page

You can contact Jo Page at jopage@graceniska.org.


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