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Willy Loman, Mary Oliver and the real story of joy

I’ve been collecting notes to do an essay on the theme of suffering in art.

For it, I had the scene of Jesus’ entombment painted by that fastidious German master of the grotesque, Matthias Grunewald. I had Frida Kahlo’s self-portrait as a leaping stag, pierced by a dozen arrows. I had a Modigliani titled, quite plainly, “A Suffering Nude.”

I was going to write about how I read these, the mutilated body of the Son of God, self-conception of the wounded artist, interior pain made visible, etc.

I might still write that essay, but it’s hard. It’s hard to contemplate suffering rendered unto art when my heart feels so raw.

Nowadays, my energy field feels porous, like my empath tendencies are magnified to the utmost. Today, on my way to do some Christmas shopping, I saw the poster for a production of Death of a Salesman (in Korean) on a train platform and felt overwhelmed to the point of tears.




Looking at this photo, snapped on my iPhone, I am near the point of tears once again. Goddamnit.

The Korean Willy Loman’s funereal, ill-fitting black suit hangs off his slouched shoulders, sapped of pride or energy.

His gaze is both confused and resigned. The deep creases and the shadows on his weary face mirror the dramatic, blurry chiaroscuro of the background. Others pass him by in a hurry like indifferent ghosts, busily headed everywhere and nowhere. I almost hear that whooshing of the trains, muffled announcements, the sound of people looking away from each other.

My heart aches for the midcentury white American that Arthur Miller’s original Salesman was, and it aches for his incarnation nearly 70 years later on a different hemisphere.

I am not a salesman, nor am I any kind of a failed patriarch, but I am a student of alienation. And deep alienation has followed us Koreans in our pursuit of wealth and happiness. It is the shadow of the American dream, which begat the post-war Korean dream.

I wondered if Willy Loman is Don Quixote’s grimmer descendent — both succumbed to fantasy and death as a response to the absurdity of life, but the former is rendered without much humorous irony.

Is it that modernity has sapped us of the will to irony (let’s say, der Wille zur Ironie, in place of der Wille zur Macht)?

I had to turn away. I cannot go and see this place. Nor do I feel hardy enough to write that essay on suffering in paintings.

Nowadays, I see the darkness and sharp-edged inside me, too easily mirrored without.

Reading the news, both American and Korean, feels surreal. I doubt I have to do much explaining about the surreal despair of observing the Orange One Who Shall Not Be Named occupying the place he’d just been elected to occupy. In Korea, though, the president is embroiled in an impeachment scandal that is rocking our sense of civic solidity to the core.

Anger, suspicion and hopelessness abound. People’s emotional wounds are in the air and swayed by the wind, raining on creation like allergenic pollen at springtime.

At times like this, I have taken to turning to Mary Oliver.

I recently took a wonderful writing course (which actually is code for mind-body-spirit integration course) with Nadia Colburn. The course, Align Your Story, is a quiet, shimmering and softening invitation to carve the space out of our busy-busy lives for creative contemplation. It asks us to lean into wholeness as the principal way of becoming artists, which is an integral truth I now fight to keep in my heart all of my days.

(If the course sounds completely amazing, it is! And I cannot recommend it more.)

In it, there is a lovely module focused on the idea of Joy, which I find myself returning to time and time again.

Wouldn’t you agree with me that it is somehow so much more challenging, disruptive and subversive to study joy in the current environs than rage and despair?

Hardly a day goes by when I am not reminded of Yeats’ great poem, The Second Coming, the eerily, depressingly ever-relevant, muscular indictment of human folly. Is the engagement with joy somehow a negation of all the legitimate and justifiable anger and disbelief we feel at the state of the world?

Is engagement with joy a betrayal of those who have been profoundly wronged and mutilated — in our own hearts, in our homelands, far away in Aleppo?

Is engagement with joy more puerile than the fastidious study of sadness? Does it require less courage?

Nadia has reminded me to study who, to me, is the Poet of Holy Joy — Mary Oliver. I picked up my beloved copy of Why I wake Early and found myself totally arrested by the following poem. (Bold is mine.)



by Mary Oliver
I go down to the edge of the sea.
How everything shines in the morning light!
The cusp of the whelk,
the broken cupboard of the clam,
the opened, blue mussels,
moon snails, pale pink and barnacle scarred—
and nothing at all whole or shut, but tattered, split,
dropped by the gulls onto the gray rocks and all the moisture gone.
It’s like a schoolhouse
of little words,
thousands of words.
First you figure out what each one means by itself,
the jingle, the periwinkle, the scallop
       full of moonlight.
Then you begin, slowly, to read the whole story.

Poems like this make me feel that Oliver was such a consummate artist of Joy. (And how joyful her language is to read, her short-syllabled American English, radiant with the acuity of love.)

Oliver’s eyes never look away from anything. This is a quality I most admire about her: her absolute insistence on looking at everything unflinchingly, including the scarredness, including the death and decay, and also no less curiously at that which is beautiful, blessed. There is a certain elegant discipline to this way of being and seeing.

You learn from Oliver that joy isn’t a state of “la-la-la”.

Joy is not a choice toward childish insouciance, effervescent and unweighted buoyance, or denial of the hard what-is.

Instead, Joy is the story of wholeness. Joy is the story of seeing that everything is broken and also not ugly; tattered but also shone on by the sun. Joy is salty.

Joy is the story of patience, of taking the time and the breath to not stop at each little word, but to weave together the many thousands of words, of knowings.

Joy is a kind of sober decision to wait to find out. Joy is the story of there is more, and that is always true.

And this is the best news of all. It means joy is possible — yes, even now, especially now.

Comments: 4

  • arturo robles
    1 year ago

    Gracias Grace for a beautiful morning read…yes I feel Joy…even after 4 yrs of mourning the lost of my dear wife..i live to honor my Isabel..so i find joy in the beauty of Life…fine music..great cinema..the beauty of Art..all the things that gave us joy. I loved the poem by Mary Oliver….and where did we find a special joy ?..on the shore of Monterey Bay.

  • Sue T
    1 year ago

    Thank you for this comfort. <3

  • Joe Loya
    1 year ago

    Gorgeous. Reminds me of a phrase “joy-making grief” that I held in my hand in prison, and rubbed vigorously like a talisman when my body wanted to get stuck in grief-forever-only mode. Helped me turn my grief into a purposeful thing. And that tilt of the head was sublime. I think the phrase originated with Saint Climacus.

  • Nadia Colburn
    10 months ago

    Lovely. Yes! So well put, and I love the energy of your writing, and am so moved by this piece. Than you, Grace Simone! Nadia