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Carole Steele wrote one of my favorite poems. It is the first one in her book, Rust Sings. Called, “Winter,” it is a catalog of deeply seen and felt physical detail, presented with the verbal precision that is one of the hallmarks of her writing. But it is the final quatrain that set me thinking.

“What have you seen that was the most beautiful?” And I looked back at my own life and come up with my own list of those things, not merely that were beautiful, but “the most beautiful.” That gave me not just pleasure, but a transcendence. These were all life-changing encounters, that filled my inner life like a freshet fills a pool. 

A distinction is often made between the “pretty” and the “beautiful.” The second is of a completely different order from the first. But, for me, there is a third order, as different from beautiful as beautiful is from pretty. It is hard to describe exactly what it is, but it makes time stand still. It isn’t something you desire, like the pretty, or admire, like the beautiful, but something that stops you in your tracks, clobbers you over the pate and reminds you that you are alive in a universe. In the first two orders, you are distinct from the object of your attention; in the third, you and it become a single thing.

The first time I encountered this, I had no clue what it was, or any way to express it. I must have been five or six years old and riding in the back seat of our 1950 Chevrolet as we drove along the top of the New Jersey edge of the Palisades. It was night and the Manhattan skyline across the Hudson was a new constellation on the horizon. A million pegs of light, like as many pinpricks poked through a black backdrop, gave something of the effect of a waning campfire, blackened by ash, through which the underlayer of flame burned, glowing coals that I now take as a metaphor for the intelligence that burns under the surface of the cranial cortex. 

Since then, I have encountered that same scintillating coal sight many times, flying across country at night and looking down at the electric cities, especially as the plane on its final descent brings the city up closer and all the light, as if coming from under a blackened blanket, just burns, flickering like stars, shifting as the plane angles towards the landing. 

 This is a planetary emotion: the awareness that we live on a round globe suspended in a cold, black immensity. The most powerful and intense encounter with this sense came on a trip to the South Carolina shore in the mid-1970s. 

Huntington Beach State Park is 2,500 acres of saltmarsh, fresh water lagoons and live oaks festooned with Spanish moss. It is a haven for birds. I added 27 species to my life list in that trip. It was by far my best single day as a birdwatcher.

An old causeway, paved in concrete, runs ramrod straight from Brookgreen Gardens, on the landward side of U.S. 17, to Atalaya, the one-time beach house of industrialist Archer Huntington and his wife, the sculptor Anna Hyatt Huntington. On one side of the roadway is the tidal saltmarsh, on the other, a pond.

The clown-faced ruddy turnstone flicked pebbles over with its beak; the oystercatcher poked its red-orange bill into the mud, looking for lunch; and the black skimmer sailed inches above the lagoon with its lower jaw slicing through the water, feeling for minnows. And there were alligators submerged like tree stumps in the murky water.

There were also herons, egrets, gulls, terns, coots and gallinules. Ibises, bitterns, phalaropes, curlews, willets and mergansers.

On a dead branch above the receding tide, an anhinga stretched its black wings out in the sun to dry. I wrote what is perhaps the earliest poem I still keep, about that anhinga.

I was with my second unofficial wife, Sharon, and we slept in the dunes and were eaten alive by sand fleas. The next morning, I went down to the beach before dawn to watch the sun come up. When it first appears, you can see it moving, slowly but distinctly.

The sliver of brilliance broke the horizon and mirrored off the tops of the ocean waves, casting the near side of each into an obsidian blackness. The effect was of turning the sea into a shifting net of burning copper laced with black lacquer. 

And then, like Joshua in the Valley of Ajalon, I saw the moving sun come to a dead halt halfway out of the water. It was a disconcerting effect. And at the very moment the sun stopped moving, the vast gears and motors of the Earth started spinning and the sand under my feet began to move under my feet, yanking me — and the whole eastern seaboard  — toward the motionless sun.

It was as if the whole planet had become a ferris wheel and I was just coming over the top. I momentarily lost my balance as my plane of reference shifted from the local to the sidereal.

A few seconds later, all was once more normal and terrestrial; the sanderlings ran back and forth with the breakers and it was time to wake the others and tell them what I had seen.

It was yet another of those planetary experiences, a complete and involuntary disjunction from the ordinary frame of reference to a more cosmic, perhaps truer, one. 

That sort of epiphany doesn’t come often, but it does come. I was camping on the north rim of the Grand Canyon, down 45 miles of dirt road on the way to Toroweap. There was not another person for 20 miles in any direction. At 6:30 exactly, with the sun already below the planet’s edge, the first star came out, directly overhead. It was Vega, in the constellation Lyra. The rest of the sky is still a glowing cyan with an orange wedge in the west. 

So far from civilization, the night sky is a revelation. As the night darkens, the stars pour out like sand from a beach pail. By 7:30 the sky is hysterical. I haven’t seen so many stars since I was a child. The Milky Way ran from north to south like the river of incandescence it is, splitting like a tributary stream from Cygnus to Sagittarius. 

I sat on the car hood, leaning back with my head against the windshield and looked straight up. For two-and-a-half hours, I sat there, looking up, trying to do nothing and think nothing. Just look. 

What at first seemed to be a solid bowl overhead, with pinpricks punched in it for the light to shine through, later took on depth. It became a lake with fish-stars swimming in it at all depths. This is beauty of the third kind, transcendent and transfigured. As I reclined on the hood, I suddenly had the sensation of being a figurehead on a ship, or a hood ornament on a car, speeding into the three-dimensional emptiness defined by those stars. 

The realization hit me that, of course, I was. I was having my vision, as it were. But it is my particular stubborn sensibility that epic vision and lumpen fact turn out to be two faces on the same head. This has happened to me before. Each time I enter the visionary world, it turns out that the transforming image I am given is grounded in simple fact.

I really am on a stony vehicle careening through stars. It is just that in everyday life, we never think of it that way. Given the solitude and the velvet sky, the obvious becomes apparent. 

When my joints were finally too stiff from sitting in one position for so long, I decided it was time to sleep. I crawled in the tent and dozed off in the silence.

Then, at 3:30 in the morning, I got out of the tent to look at the sky again. It was all turned around. Orion was now up and bright as searchlights. And the Milky Way went east and west, having revolved around the pole star. So, this bullet we’re riding on is rifled. 

The night went on like that: One sense input after another, so busy through the nocturnal time-sluice that I hardly got any sleep at all. At 6 in the morning, the coyotes yowled, and I decided it must be time to get up. The east was whitening, although the sun was behind the mesa. 

When I drew open the tent flap, I saw the blue sky patched with gray-brown clouds, and dangling from one of them was a rainbow. It was not much more than a yellowish bright spot against the angry cloud, but I saw its familiar arc and promise. 

We live two lives. In the common one, we are one in 7 billion, a single voice in a clamor of humanity, spaced 100 per square mile. We function as part of the crowd. But in that other life, we are alone. We are the one, the singular — heroes in our own life’s epic, even, and we recognize the solitary importance of ourselves to ourselves. 

It is this second life — so rich and so important to our sense of meaning and purpose — that we come to meet in solitude. That is perhaps what Montaigne meant when he wrote, “The greatest thing in the world is to know how to belong to oneself.” 

The first life is brought to you by television, newspapers, books, radio and movies. It is a cultural existence, defined by other people. It is the madding crowd we are never far from. 

The second life comes to you when you seek it, alone, in quiet. Ultimately, to yourself and your family, it is this second self that is important. It is this self that is fed by beauty, is kept alive by beauty. 

Continued in Part 2

van gogh

I am sitting in my car in the parking garage of the local mall, waiting to chauffeur my granddaughter home after a shift at the food court. It’s one of the perks of being a grandfather; we get to talk on the ride. But I have been  misinformed and I’m an hour early. No problem, I sit back in the shade of the parking garage and pop in a CD of Strauss’s Four Last Songs, the heartbreaking beauty of which always leaves me weeping.

Outside, in the sun, the breeze blows the branches and leaves of a tree in eccentric and seemingly random arcs. A whole tree doesn’t blow this way or that, but becomes a symphony of animated parts, very like a dancer. Behind the tree, in the distant sky, brilliant white thunderheads rise against the blue; they are the source of the fresh breeze that moves my tree.

It is a moment of epiphany — a pulling back of the veil. It is one of those instant recognitions of intense beauty, the kind that makes your insides swell and overflow through your eyes. It is the thing about such moments that dozens of shoppers coming out of the mall and finding their cars can see the same thing and not be overwhelmed because seeing the beauty requires being ripe for its discovery. It is available there for anyone to see, but most of the audience — like me most of the time — are preoccupied and so the moment escapes and they are robbed of one of those times that transfigures the mere act of living and gives one a reason to be grateful.milky way 1

At such times, it is occasionally possible to be misled into believing that the world is truly a beautiful place and that we just don’t take the time to notice. The beauty is overwhelming in its persuasion. I’m not talking here about pretty scenery or colorful flowers, but about a metaphysical insight into the animating spirit of the cosmos. It is the sense one gets if you find yourself in an unpopulated region of the planet and can see at night the bright gash across the sky that we call the Milky Way. You sense something bigger, transcendent, sublime. It is both profoundly beautiful and also more than a bit scary.

One has a memory trove of such moments — and they almost all come in brief flashes; I’m not sure how we could stand it for any length of time. I felt it one dawn at the beach in South Carolina, staring east at the twilight getting brighter. At the moment the sun popped the horizon, when its movement against the stationary line dividing ocean and sky becomes apparent, like a second hand instead of a minute hand on a clock, I got dizzy, almost lost my balance on the sand, because instead of seeing the sun rise above the horizon, I felt as if I were at the top of a planetary ferris wheel, jerked forward toward the sun; I was moving, not the sun. The light played on the waves, dividing the lit from the shadowed water in a shifting network of obsidian black and glowing copper. The effect lasted only a few seconds before the quotidian world reasserted itself into a familiar sunrise, but the memory of that instant is burned into my mind with a fury and insistence that informs now every sunrise, even when I no longer lose my balance.

Arch Cape

Many years ago, I went to the Pacific Ocean with a woman I was crazy about. We rented a cottage on the Oregon coast and after a night of playing geography on her body and memorizing it (so that I knew every swell and bulge, every mole and wrinkle on it), when the morning came, we stayed in bed until our consciences ached. We smelled of each other and reveled in it, our muscles were sore. When Robin finally got up, she said, “I’m going to make breakfast this morning.” I stayed in bed with my head propped up on a pillow and I watched her silently going about her business. The world had stopped turning; the fury of machinery, trucking, commerce and struggle had ceased. Robin opened the curtains and the light poured in, but she was herself lit solely from within.saskia

She was more than just Robin at that time — she was transfigured in the light and seemed almost to glow. It was just a beam of sunlight that struck through the window, but the light seemed to come instead from some internal tungsten filament. She became all women. She was Ruth and Naomi, Eve and Rembrandt’s Saskia. She was not performing some minor task, but had hooked into the flow of the world and was living, glowing myth. Pure Archetype.

In a white blouse and black pleated trousers, she began fixing breakfast in a slow, methodical fashion and everything she did was the mimicking of thousands of years of daily living. She slowly cut off a piece of butter and placed it in the sizzling pan; she sliced the onion and cheese and with her arms holding the bowl on her hip close to her belly, she beat the eggs and prepared to dump them in the pan. The light was uncanny and I nearly cried for the beauty of that morning, the quiet intensity of her motions. All I know is that for 15 minutes Robin ceased being Robin and became everyone who ever prepared breakfast.

That moment couldn’t last, and neither could that relationship. Things beyond my ken were involved. They usually are.

P02969 001In the late 1960s I went camping at Cape Hatteras with my college buddy, Alexander. It was March, before the tourist season and the beach was empty and the wind was cold and brisk. One night we went out toward the cape point. The only light we had was our Coleman lantern and near the point the surf sounded from both sides. The air was thick with moisture and the lamp cast our shadows up into the sky where our heads touched the constellations. Our forms cast out on the cosmos and looked rather like the Colossus of Goya’s late “Black Paintings.” And I recalled the phrase from the Magnificat — “quia fecit mihi magna,” — and I felt magnified.

There are many instances of such epiphanies, although each will be personal to us, unshared in particulars, but common in outline. I have the climb up Mount Angeles in the Olympic Mountains of Washington to the lake with a pure John Martin waterfall on the opposite shore. There is the moment that slammed me in Port Jervis, at the joint of New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania, when I saw a vacant lot by the railroad roundhouse that was blasted with fall wildflowers — ironweed, asters, yarrow, goldenrod, queen-anne’s lace, joe pye weed, mullein, cow itch — it was one of the most beautiful things I have ever seen and even now I prefer weeds to domesticated gardens.

Buchenwald

Buchenwald

But I said such epiphanies can mislead us. For the religious or the sentimental, such moments speak of a beautiful cosmos. But these epiphanies can carry the opposite. When I was still a boy — probably five or six years old and it was just a few years after World War II — films from the liberated concentration camps were shown on television. I don’t know whether they were George Stevens’ films from Dachau or Army films from Buchenwald or Bergen-Belsen. But these films burned into even my childhood imagination, those spectres, those skeletons, those harrowed, sunken cheeks, those piles of skeletons wrapped in sacks of their own withered leathery skin. Soldiers picked up the stiffened bony puppets and tossed them into the backs of trucks. This too is ephiphany, the drawing back of the veil.

Aleppo, 2016

Aleppo, 2016

I see something of the same in the eyes of Syrian refugees, I see revenants of postwar Berlin in the bombed out walls of Aleppo. There is beauty in the world, but there is also horror. Ugliness to balance that transcendence, evil to mock the elation.

One thinks of all the genocides, mass murders, atrocities and pogroms of history, the cities razed to the ground with all their populace put to the sword, of all the gulags, all the dead Cathars, Tutsis and Hutus, all those drowned in the cataclysms of swollen rivers, ravaging earthquakes, the decimation of populations through plague, the millions lost to bizarre insect-born diseases. As soon as you find yourself Panglossing over the glory of a sunrise, you catch yourself short remembering Cain and Abel and the real meaning of the brotherhood of man.

One could make a list of those moments of disillusionment and disaffection. Such a list is a weight around the neck of any afflating joy. One recognizes the moment when you realize someone you have loved no longer loves back, when one is betrayed at work or by a friend, when you see the ravages of illness in those you care most deeply for. The world is not an easy place to love. Suffering is universal; even the rich lose their loved ones.

The truth is that we seldom live in the joy or the pain, but rather spend our days in utter banality. Banality is our salvation: If we lived in the joy we would go mad; if we lived in the pain, we would also go mad. So, we don’t see the dancing tree and we ignore the drowning refugees so that we can get on with our lives. It can hardly be otherwise. The world would come to a halt if we all lived in the beauty, if we all bore the suffering.

grunewald

pieta 1Yet, we cannot ignore our epiphanies, either. They sneak up on us, and for a brisk instant we glimpse eternity and its glorious, horrible uncaring. We recognize our place in this swirling inhuman chaos, both ecstatic and virulent. We ask our artists to memorialize both. They can take the two and bind them together, such as the exquisite beauty of Grunewald’s painting of the torture and gruesome death of a man on the rack of a crucifixion, or the sorrow of a mother grieving over the death of her son.

Certainly not all art addresses this special issue, but a surprising amount of our art, whether painting, sculpture, music or poetry, attempts to remind us of the forgotten intensity of existence, whether on the side of ecstasy or on the side of suffering. Even so simple as a watercolor of a vase of flowers hints at this.

If it is banality that saves us from madness, it is art that saves us from banality.