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In Pursuit of Radical Joy

Very early in the new year, I will turn sixty, an age I never imagined I would see. My older friends told me what a big deal forty would be, and then fifty, but neither of them felt like a big deal to me. Forty felt like permission; fifty felt like letting go of whatever filters remained. Forty and fifty were signposts, or maybe toll booths, on the road to becoming increasingly okay with who I am.

Sixty, I can tell already, might be a pretty big deal. It is the age after which, when things break, they don’t ever fix completely. It is the age after which 5 or 6 hours of sleep in a night will never be sufficient again. Sixty, I think, is when a woman steps fully into her role as elder. My mother, at sixty, had her second of five facelifts. That is not the sort of elder that I hope to be. I have heard people say that sixty is the age when it is no longer possible to believe the time you have ahead is infinite. But I never believed the time ahead of me was infinite, and I have always tried to spend my time well.

I love my work, writing and teaching and mentoring the beautiful stories and books my students write into the world. It is possible that I have spent too much of my life working, not enough of it sitting on the bank of a river, or walking in the pasture as the first snow of the year turns it white. It is also possible that the way we think about time is far too limited, and that all the perceptions of clocks ticking, time gone by and time running out makes us sadder than we need to be.

The Covid-19 pandemic taught us many things, among them the elastic nature of time. 2020 went by in an instant, and simultaneously lasted ten years. I caught Covid before it was even officially in the country, battled long Covid for months after. I emerged from that year of sickness and sorrow far more in tune with how I wanted to shape my days from now on.

I have always measured the quality of a day by how much of it I get to spend outside, moving through a natural landscape. If I were to rank the conveyances that propel me through those landscapes in ascending order of joy they produce in me, the list would be: airplane, car, train, bicycle, hiking boots, skis (downhill and cross country), sailboat, kayak, paddle board, horse, gaited horse, dogsled, (dogsled only taking the top spot if I get to drive.) I am paying attention, since Covid, to the moments that bring me unmitigated joy.

Purple aster on the Medano this summer. Photo by Pam Houston.

I had three such moments this summer, hiking the Tomales Point Trail among the tule elk on windswept cliffs above the Pacific, kayaking in and out of the sand caves near Cornucopia, Wisconsin during a sunset that felt like it would linger into the next day, and loping a Missouri Fox Trotter named Raj through belly deep purple aster, so plentiful it was like riding through a never ending impressionist painting, on the Medano Ranch in Colorado’s stunning San Luis Valley. And see what I did there? Without even thinking about it, I stretched time out beyond its generally agreed upon parameters, the lingering sunset, the never-ending purple field.

Time stopped, we say, in moments of great joy or sorrow, but don’t we really mean that a moment of time imprinted itself on us, left its mark on us in such a way that the call of the Osprey as the sun fell into the Pacific, or the slosh of the green waves against the orange walls of the sand caves, or the rhythm of Raj’s hooves as we floated above a hundred thousand flowers, those things are not just part of my memory bank but part of my body as well. You’re alive, you’re alive, you’re alive, say Raj’s hoofbeats, and I have not forgotten, because the feeling now exists inside my cells.

Pam and Raj.

This is why I feel (deep in my heart–I don’t trot this out much for public consumption) that to say I have only (let’s say) 20 quality years left is only one (limited) way to measure. But sitting here, on an airplane over the freshly snow blanketed Rockies (as it happens, my least favorite conveyance, but I still like it), I can close my eyes and be back atop Raj, loping through those meadows. In truth, I don’t even have to close my eyes. It takes very little effort of any kind on my part, and there he is, big Raj, with his sweet horse smell and his lumbering shoulders, pushing (always) to get to the front of the herd. That ride has been so present to me so often since it happened, I have to at least consider the possibility that any moment is every moment, that time is far more circular and far less linear than we have been led to believe.

Also there is this: when my time actually does run out, I won’t even know that I am gone.

I know you are thinking: “Rein it in, Pam,” and so I will.

Whether or not we agree about the nature of time, we can agree that making more of those indelible, joyful, life giving moments is what we all need to get up to. With this in mind, I have color coded my calendar well into the year of my 60th birthday, blue for “potential joy,” green for “true joy,” and orange for “radical joy.” These are educated guesses to be sure, based on where I will be and what I will be doing. Potential joy is for working: a teaching or writing day that promises to go well. True joy might mean I will get to catch up with a friend I haven’t seen for too long, or someone who brings me joy no matter how often I see them. Radical joy involves one or more of those same people, along with a dog team, a kayak, a pair of cross-country skis or a horse. If the three colors don’t add up to ten days total every month I am compelled to change my plans to get myself there. Not because I fear that time is running out, but because I understand more and more all the ways it stretches, and I want to stretch it towards all of the beauty left in the world.



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