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Parisa Ebrahimi The Joy Scout

We met at a bar in North Vancouver. The 49ers were playing, and I was in the company of two uprooted San Franciscans, Parisa, and their mutual friend whose name I’ve since forgotten. Our tall table formed a right angle between the bar and the big screen; we shouldered off our jackets, sat for a few hours with our chests directed towards the game, drank Stellas and listened to each other at half capacity. It was loud and the service was rushed.

I was simultaneously enchanted and repelled by Parisa. She kept laughter accessible in her throat, spoke with her entire body and lived across the Burrand Inlet with her parents—whom she portrayed as the kind of couple whose freezer is stocked with frozen meatballs and spanakopita squares. The best hosts are always prepared for a party, she reminded us.

The game faded when she talked and drew us in like moths to flame when she didn’t. In her silence, we sat useless in the blue glow and waited for the score to change. When it was finalized, she looked back at me, swiped through her phone, and asked, “do you want to take the Seabus together?” It was dark and the worry of getting back to Gastown at night without a map or phone must have been visible on my face. I nodded.

“Great. We gotta go though, it leaves in eight minutes.”

I stood, said goodbye to the others and slung my jacket over my arm. The drawstrings bounced against my shins as we sped down the hill to the water’s edge.

Plastic kiosks the shape of tombstones glowed in the near distance. “They take cards, right?” I never got around to withdrawing Canadian cash. 

“They do, but I got it. Here—take this one.” She pulled a ticket the size of a business card from her purse. It was thin with the luxurious sheen of a Neiman Marcus receipt, and I lost myself to the vision of a sales associate in a black blazer sliding the sheet across a granite countertop and circling the 90-day-exchange information with her fingernail.

The sound of Parisa’s voice brought me back, “No one’s ever checked my ticket before,” she said. Why she bothered to buy one at all was a question that felt very American. 

Aboard the ferry, we sat opposite each other in white plastic chairs and moved across the water like butter on a warm pan. She told me of her plans to live in South America come January and even asked how I interpret joy—though partway through my explanation her attention waned and turned inward, a pattern I’ve come to recognize in those who live in measurements and comparisons. We were minutes away from docking; I shifted the focus to her.

“What about you? Where do you find joy? What do you think it is?”

Her answer—distant, limp and embattled with vague references—made me think of a line from George Orwell’s 1946 Essay, Politics and the English Language: 

“The great enemy of clear language is insincerity. When there is a gap between one’s real and one’s declared aims, one turns as it were instinctively to long words and exhausted idioms, like a cuttlefish spurting out ink.” 

What did she believe? What was in her heart?

 The motor sung, then hummed, then purred as the overhead lights rose to a jarring brightness and we were corralled into a narrow terminal, a windowless time capsule, a stale, linoleum-studded path that disguised evening as afternoon. Once outside, Parisa and I lingered for a moment with our hands comfortably by our sides before exchanging cards and going our separate ways.

“Keep in touch, I want to hear all about South America,” I said over my shoulder as I walked Eastward, uncertain if I’d ever hear from her again.

A week later, she emailed me.

“Our conversation sparked some thoughts in me,” she wrote. “I kept thinking back to put my finger on this whole joy thing a bit better, I think that I've realized joy and fulfillment go hand in hand. I think joy is living with purpose - finding your happiness inside instead of from outside praise. I think maybe that's why I was having a hard time articulating some of my ideas around it - I've been feeling fairly removed from "purpose" the last little bit. It's funny, but I don't think I really realized just how negative of an impact that was having on me and my perspective until I got a little bit of purpose and intent back into my routine (South America here I come!)”

Her timing was uncanny. Before checking my inbox, I had been tumbling through the Internets and came across a Mark Manson piece that differentiated “having a life purpose” from “living with purpose” in which he recommends that we stop asking “what should I do with my life?” and start asking “what can I do with my time that is important?”

Because of its resonance, I bluntly asked in response: “what about your upcoming trip to South America feels important?” To which she said,

“I think the great thing - and maybe the important thing for me right now -  is that I have been in my comfort zone for a long time. Obviously this isn't any sort of a complaint, but I've been so lucky to be so secure - great people and support system, fantastic apartment, steady job I like, things to look forward to... I'm so excited about being nervous and anxious about something! It's an uncertainty that's necessary, and that I've missed.” 

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Dolora Zajick

The Joy Scout Dolora Zajick

Once, in Europe, a set of identical twins approached Dolora Zajick and asked if she would look inside their mouths.

“They were uncertain about their voice types,” she said, addressing us—a small audience—from the San Francisco Conservatory concert hall stage.

It was a Wednesday evening. Outside: layered filth on eraser-smudged sidewalks, people slogging and weaving through debris with ugly steps, horns crying, metal skidding along crusty rails with a manic quality of something unhinged and hectic. Inside: refinement.

Dolora was a masterpiece of composure—an internationally-acclaimed dramatic mezzo-soprano standing before us to lead a Master Class for three female students.

“Well,” she continued, “the ask was so peculiar that of course I said yes.” A contained roar lunged towards the stage as she demonstrated how the two girls bent their knees, tipped their heads back and waited with their mouths agape.

“Sure enough, the inside of their mouths were shaped differently. One had a horseshoe shape that was very deep, and the other’s was narrow at the front but wide in the back with a very shallow palette.  In order to get the same resonance, they had to widen their mouths to different degrees—which was confusing to them, ‘shouldn’t we be the same?’ But no, a voice type is entirely dependent on a person’s physiology and biology, even when two people share a genetic makeup, it’s not one size fits all.”

It was with that individualized attention that Dolora transformed each vocalist before our eyes. The first, a full-bodied woman afire with nerves, sang Mozart with the sparkle of a brick. There was something soldierly in her tone and opaque in her gaze.

“You’re doing too much with your lips,” Dolora said after the applause. “The work isn’t in your lips. Drop your jaw.” Her plump, rosy hand reached up to her face so that her thumb applied upward pressure beneath her chin and her first knuckle rested against it directly, like a lover lifting a bowing gaze. In demonstration, she flapped her jaw open and closed with the ease of a puppet, then reached over and commandeered the singer’s jaw.

“Relax it completely. Good. There, that’s it. Now, from the top—sing the very first line.”

Dolora rotated her wrist from beneath the woman’s chin to form a U-shape in front of her mouth, pinching the singer’s cheeks together in a fishlike pucker.

“You know where focus comes from? The tiny space between the hard palette and the tongue. I want you to sing it again, and pretend like there’s an egg in your mouth, if you close that space, the egg will break.”

It was the difference between skim and buttermilk; A sound that drilled into bedrock. The singer, ablaze with delight, bloomed with cool, unguarded confidence.

“Yes! Now, you need a lot of ‘heh’ in your sound. Heh. Heh. Hehhhh,” Dolora instructed half singing half speaking. “It starts with support. Let’s see where you find your support, push down on my hands.” The singer, bemused and timid, pressed unconvincingly upon 62 year-old palms. “Nope, that’s not for you. Ok, push in on me instead,” Dolora said, determined, stepping back and lifting her arms so that her elbow caps faced directly towards the ground. Legs wide like she was on a moving train. Forceful resistance. “That’s not it, either. Alright, last one, push against me.”

The two interlaced their fingers like children playing Mercy, and leaned into one another until the space between their bodies formed a triangle. “Okay. You feel the muscles you’re engaging? Those ‘push’ muscles are the ones that give you the most core strength in your abdomen; you need them to control your exhalation.”

She freed her hand from the singer’s and pivoted towards the audience.

“There are different schools of breathing and different sides of the body that you can breathe from. How much you use your side muscles versus your back muscles…it can become very confusing for a singer, especially when a teacher doesn’t tailor her instructions to the singer’s physiology. There’s no one size fits all for the palette and there’s no one size fits all for breath support. You have to very carefully ascertain what works for you.”

She turned to face the singer.

“You have a wide, short torso, so your support comes from engaging the muscles you used when you were pushing against me. Start at … Con noi nacque quella face…”

The piano and the singer sounded.

“Good, good, now don’t stop—keep the focus, coax the focus! Listen for it, it’s the focus that’s going to cut through the orchestra. Yes, yes, middle of the tongue. That’s it, that’s so much better! That’s honest.

Dolora gave the other two vocalists the same care. She said to the second, “don’t jam it. Start from nothing,” and to the third, “think less and get some guts behind it.” Both pressed and pushed against Dolora’s weight and attempted to echo her dark-throated elegance.

After the final singer bowed, Dolora mooned about the stage taking questions from the spectators and sharing pedagogical techniques from The Institute for Young Dramatic Voices that she founded in 2006. Then, the conversation turned, and without proper segue, landed on White Handed Gibbons.

“They sing like sopranos,” she said in a light so lucid.

From the mouths of several audience members, a whispered ‘huh’ escaped.

“White Handed Gibbons are the only other primates that make a very big effort to synchronize their body movements with other White Handed Gibbons through song, dance, or both. It causes the brain to release high levels of oxytocin—which, in humans, creates this cocaine-like high. For us, it only happens in two other instances: just before a woman gives birth, and just as she starts to nurse. Overall, it’s a hormone that jump-starts the bonding process—bonding between mother and child, and bonding between individuals. They’re even discovering that it makes autistic people more social by rewiring the brain.”

It was well past ten o’clock and Dolora began to look ashy and fatigued. As abruptly as the topic arrived, it vanished, and she exited the stage before the applause thinned.

I entered the line of students and admirers all waiting for a word or a signature. The preceding hours turned in my mind like spokes of headlights wheeling across a ceiling: there was no single approach, no wide-sweeping advice, nothing but emphasis on the individual and her unique corporal composition.

From the woman who The New York Times described as a ‘mezzo in a class by herself,’ I expected an answer that would perpetuate the evening’s theme and, in some way, be self-centric—of or relating to her astounding career as a student, performer, teacher and composer.

Instead, she said:

“Oxytocin. It is my joy to synchronize.”

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Maria and Olga

Maria and Olga The Joy Scout

Ours was the kind of family to turn a two-mile bike ride into an afternoon affair. Put on play clothes, dust off helmets, check tires, pump tires, apply sunscreen, hydrate, pack all four bikes in the bed of Dad’s ’95 Ford Ranger, pile in, park at Del Amigo, wonder whether or not we closed the garage door, then, for maybe an hour, cycle down the Iron Horse Trail as far as Alamo before snacking and doing it all in the opposite direction.

My sister and I were terrors through it all. We’d speed up alongside ladies with strollers or packs of Bichons, speak-singing “on your left!” a little too loudly from a little too far away. We’d throw sticks into high-trafficked areas, and ring our bike bells to the indiscernible rhythms of family classics like Dust In the Wind and Love Me Do.

This time, though, I was alone in the honey-colored light of late afternoon—a groundless, gliding unconsciousness carrying me high above myself. After about three miles, acorns—sprinkled like rice on cathedral steps, pulverized into a sunbaked chalk from the weight of wheels—arrested my attention and struck an embedded memory gong.

Visions of Christmas tree skirts and winter robes, advents in shop windows, fir boughs and garland, fires and festival stalls, heavy hand-knit sweaters, smells of smoke and nutmeg and malt, toys and little brown packages, ribbons curled from a scissor’s blade, holiday confusion and holiday gleam, gilded pinecones and the soft sound of Dad’s slippers padding up the stairs.

It all came flooding back. Steph and I got bikes that year.

Pull over at the next shady bench you see, I said to myself, submerged in a slurry undercurrent of childhood.

Within seconds, a scratched and weathered seat came into view. I didn’t stop. I didn’t even slow to see which man or which woman was memorialized on the brass plaque centered on its backrest. Something inside me said, not here, don’t stop now. I knew it irrationally like knowledge in a dream and thus carried on like a stone sinking soundlessly into dark water. Steady cadence, calm pedaling, one two, one two, one two, one two deer grazing along the fence line.

“Right there, see them, momma?” A knee-high boy pointed and yelled pure as a baby’s tear.

Since his passing, my mom, sister and I have come to associate deer with Dad, and right then I knew that had I ignored my inner voice and stopped where I said I would, the sight of their lean bodies, the heart-shock, the receiving-end voltage that lit my lips with an electric smile…

That meant to be feeling, it carried me onward to three iron benches, warm and ornate, right where the trail and Rutger Road meet in a T. Given how I felt, like I’d been left to tumble in a dryer full of rocks and roses, there was little to do but pierce the peel of my orange with my thumbnail and sit. The present contains such bright shards of the past.

Two women, resting one bench over at an arm’s distance apart, spoke with distinct luminosity--a dusty, golden quality unique to South America.

Peace ballooned in my chest.

I’ve long been guilty of edging my way into conversations, especially with strangers speaking Spanish. Some people are as responsive as cabinets, while others are like Maria and Olga: gracious, interested, eyes silver blazing. At first, I eased in with English, remarking on the beautiful weather and mentioning that I’ve just returned to the area after living in Argentina, San Luis Obispo and—

 “We’re from Argentina!” Olga, the younger sister, said brightly as if speaking to an acquaintance at a cocktail party.

That was my in. From then on, though I’ve translated it here, our exchange was exclusively en español.

My helmet—reflective and unbuckled—rested on my head while Olga brought me up to speed on their reason for being there. “She lives in Antioch, I live in Livermore. We meet here in the middle once every two weeks and walk.”

“My son lives close. Maybe one mile from here,” Maria said, voice staccato and cracked. She didn’t yet trust me and sat back against the latticed iron, broadshouldered and bored-looking, as Olga shared more and more about her grandchildren—tiny hands squelching flour and baking powder, sugar and salt and lard and eggs all between their tiny fingers, shrieking, spreading their palms wide, mira! mira! thrilled beyond reason by the sticky empanada dough. Garlic scraps. Pans clashing. Faint drift of Carlos Gardel and incense burning, swirling.

Maria observed me closely, assessing the way I listened and the questions I asked her sister. I removed my helmet and Olga carried the conversation in another direction.

“Their grandfather and I, we’ve been married for 39 years, we were taught that love lasts forever.” Formality hung in the air as I silently turned my tongue around the word forever. Her next words, void of gravity, floated disjointed from her last: “We love to shop together.”

She also loved to shop alone.

“Although sometimes when I do, I find a blouse or a sweater I really like—usually at Macy’s—and always always always this little voice inside—what is that? My conscious? Sure, it’s my conscious saying you’re not going to wear that. You don’t need that. You don’t love that. You already have something almost identical. And do I listen? No. I buy it anyway and what do I do? I take it home and, just like that, I don’t like it anymore. The next day, I have to go aaaaall the way back and return it. What a waste of a time, huh? I don’t know why I keep doing it!”

Olga—tired-looking, slumped, retaining water in her ankles—leaned in.

“She doesn’t trust herself.” Low register, soft rasp. “That voice, it’s there to tell you something that your eyes and brain don’t understand. Most of the time it doesn’t make sense, but I have learned to listen.”

She leaned back and shifted her weight onto her right thigh, the corner of her left hip hovered momentarily.

“Three, four years ago, I used to walk around the water in Antioch every morning…took me two hours and fifteen minutes total. I started slow, you know, went further and further every morning. There were lots of people out, older people fishing or walking their dogs so I was never scared. It was a big place but I always felt safe.”

She ducked her thumb under her pointer and middle fingers and spun the thick silver band clockwise. 

“One morning, I was about to leave the house for my walk, and something stopped me in the doorframe: that voice—the one she doesn’t listen to—it came up from my abdomen and said, don’t go. It’s dangerous today.”

Maria pinched her legs closer together, and, in a scoffing motion, shifted her lips towards her right ear.

“I said to myself, What’s dangerous? It’s not dangerous! You go every morning, it’s safe, you’re fine.” Convinced, she set out on her normal loop. “At first, nothing was out of the ordinary. I was walking fast like I always do—I get into a rhythm and don’t like to stop at all. Anyway, that morning, maybe one hour in, I saw this pencil—unused, still in the package—just a little too late. My body had so much momentum it couldn’t stop in time and I tripped over it, falling headfirst and panicked towards the cement. I tried to catch myself, I put this hand out in front of me, but my four fingers flipped backwards and the weight of my entire body crushed them.”

With her right hand, she pulled all but her left thumb back towards her chest. The deep folds in her palm became faint creases. Taught skin, unnatural bend.

“Before I could even feel the pain, I sucked my wedding ring from below my knuckle and within a minute all of this, all four for these fingers, were completely blue. I couldn’t move, it was such terrible, terrible pain and swelling so fast. I stayed on the ground for probably an hour hoping someone would come along the path and call for help. But it was deserted. I saw no one at all. So I used my good hand to help myself stand, and, completely disoriented, I walked the rest of the way to my house and called my daughter. It took me over a year to recover, I couldn't do anything with it: cut vegetables, tie my laces, nothing. They made me do these exercises, opening and closing my hand in hot water—I’m not sure how much it helped, look, see how this finger doesn’t go all the way in when I make a fist?”

She was beyond sympathy and dramatic pauses.

“And I knew. I knew! That voice inside that stopped me before I went outside…it said not to go, that that day was unlike other days: dangerous. But I didn’t listen. I don’t think very many people do listen. It’s hard, you know, because…because our bodies are usually what have illnesses or injuries, but our minds can be hurt, too--sick when our emotions aren’t well, when we’re not listening to ourselves, when we don’t have trust…and we have to recuperate that part of us just the same. We have to heal our minds, too. Took me a long time, but now I know how to listen. I’ve figured out how to trust myself, and I think that’s what it means to have joy.

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