TRANSLUCENCE by Denise Levertov
Once I understood (till I forget, at least)
the immediacy of new life, Vita Nova,
redemption not stuck in linear delays,
I perceived also (for now) the source
of unconscious light in faces
I believe are holy, not quite transparent,
more like the half-opaque whiteness
of Japanese screens or lampshades,
grass or petals imbedded in that paper-thin
substance which is not paper as this is paper,
and which permits the passage of what is luminous
though forms remain unseen behind its protection.
I perceive that in such faces, through
the translucence we see, the light we intuit
is of the already resurrected, each
a Lazarus, but a Lazarus (man or woman)
without memory of tomb or of any
swaddling bands except perhaps
the comforting ones of their first
infant house, the warm receiving blanket….
They know of themselves nothing different
from anyone else. This great unknowing
is part of their holiness. They are always trying
to share out joy as if it were cake or water,
something ordinary, not rare at all.
“They are always trying to share out joy as if it were cake or water, something ordinary, not rare at all.”
A thoughtful, poet friend once shared this luminous Denise Levertov poem with me, and I have cherished it ever since. I love the picture the poem creates of soulful humans who exude a certain translucence, the light “of the already resurrected” of “a Lazarus (man or woman):” people who “know of themselves nothing different from anyone else” and whose “great unknowing is part of their holiness.” And especially, people who “are always trying to share out joy as if it were cake or water, something ordinary, not rare at all.” What a way to live: to “share(s) out joy as if it were cake or water, something ordinary.” I have learned that one way to mete out joy naturally, almost unconsciously, is to find and regularly express joy in the ordinary.
Virginia Woolf often wrote of the enjoyment of the most commonplace objects, the most regular of days. This resonant example falls in her early novel Night and Day:
...She usually breathed some sigh of thankfulness that her life provided her with such moments
of pure enjoyment. She was robbing no one of anything, and yet, to get so much pleasure
from simple things, such as eating one’s own breakfast alone in a room which had nice
colours in it, clean from the skirting of the boards to the corners of the ceiling, seemed to suit
her so thoroughly that she used at first to hunt about for someone to apologize to, or for some
flaw in the situation (74).
The satisfaction of dining alone, when normally one is surrounded, and a quiet delight in the colors and crispness of one’s surroundings, are conditions nearly too ordinary to be mentioned yet are deliciously pleasurable and relatable to many.
In addition to finding pleasure and enthusiasm in the everyday, we elevate the habit if we
share that passion with those around us. Sometimes we might shy away from voicing our exuberance. C.S. Lewis noted that we might be reticent to include others in our joy out of a general shyness or even a fear that we might bore others with our zeal for the simple. He also noted how pervasive this joy in the ordinary is, noting it as a form of praise. Lewis observed in Reflections on the Psalms:
I had never noticed that all enjoyment spontaneously overflows into praise unless (sometimes
even if) shyness or fear of boring others is deliberately brought in to check it. The world rings
with praise -- lovers praising their mistresses, readers their favourite poet, walkers praising the
countryside, players praising their favourite game - praise of weather, wines, dishes, actors,
motors, horses, colleges, countries, historical personages, children, flowers, mountains, rare
stamps, rare beetles, even sometimes politicians or scholars. I had not noticed how the
humblest, and at the same time most balanced and capacious, minds, praised most…”
I smiled at the variety and day-to-day quality of this list of varied entities and objects that incite our praise and paused at the notion that we can hold back our joy so as not to bore others. This is a truth upon which I have seldom reflected but frequently have experienced. It is not uncommon for me to exclaim with joy over some workaday delight: a bluebird perched on a telephone wire, a jaunty mushroom rising from the garden after an evening’s deluge, a peculiar bug that perches in our car and seems to move its legs to the music we are playing. It is also not unusual for me to check myself around others, particularly those outside my family, or those I know less well, and to fear that I might bore them or strike them as odd should I share out my joy in these everyday things.
Lewis sagely noted that tendency of human nature to censor outbursts of joy, and I would offer that this censorship is largely the response of adults and seldom that of children. Children, by and large, do not check their joy. They do not hold back their delight. There is no filtering process that questions, “Is this too basic an observation to mention? Will I confuse others or embarrass myself if I mention my rapture over the sight of this sports car?” I think that this ability of children to express their pleasures unchecked might be one factor in Woolf’s description of youth as “that great cathedral space which is childhood.” The ceilings are off for children and their enthusiasm. They mete out joy as though it is “something ordinary, not rare at all.” And they do not stop to think twice about it. Perhaps this is one reason that Jesus admonished us to be like little children and why getting in touch with the creative self is often described as accessing the ““inner child.” We must cultivate that uncensored, “cathedral space” within ourselves that breaks out the pipe music and rings the bells indiscriminately across all nearby ears and shouts, “This is worth noting! This is worthy of praise! This is worthy of joy!” When we learn to do this, we make joy accessible both to ourselves and to others on a moment’s notice in the most mundane or otherwise dreary of situations. And perhaps, if we grow in our skillfulness in this practice, we will manifest the translucence of the “already resurrected” that Levertov writes about, “sharing out joy as if it were cake or water, something ordinary, not rare at all.”