There is much beauty in the world and its people.
(Dear Reader, I beg your patience. In this post I’m going to attempt to start at beauty and end up at crisis. At this moment of beginning, I’m not sure I’ll find the path.)
There is much beauty in the world and its people. That is what I feel and what I believe. I would say, too, that beauty is what I see around me; it is my nearest and often most vivid experience. Children, what grows from the ground, surfaces, words on pages, good hearts. Beauty is real to me.
Last week I was in San Francisco, the first time since 1987, and I stayed with my friends Marcia and Steve, who live near the Presidio. On my first evening there, Steve and dog Henry walked me up there to look out over the city and across to Alcatraz and Angel Island, the Bay Bridge, a cemetery, the Golden Gate. We walked through cypress and eucalyptus trees that composed a woods both magical and spooky, and everywhere in the air was their scent.
Good words fail at these overwhelming moments. “Wow, oh wow” and “oh, my god” were about the best I could manage. America the beautiful. That’s the kind of song you’d write in a moment like that.
Walking back to Marcia and Steve’s place, I admired the order and neatness of streets and homes in a grid; I studied what San Franciscans plant in their pocket front yards and container gardens. Marcia, on her front stoop, has managed a yellow poppy, button daises, and trailing leaves. Verdancy: in the air is constant moisture.
There is not, however, enough moisture — or water resources — available for all the ways humans use it. Marcia hinted at this once during a conversation about weather. There had been a recent rainy spell, but she feared it had not rained enough, and that they were heading into their second year of a drought. And that, too, is a reality, a factual one.
It’s so weird when that happens, when the reality of fact clashes with the reality of experience and perception. There is a drought. The hills are green and the bay is beautiful. Fact and feeling do not always play well together. Usually, the one that clamors the loudest wins.
Last summer, as we were driving up to Montreal through Vermont’s Green Mountains, I marveled out loud to Jimmy about the loveliness of the area: how green, how open, how unspoiled. I kept swiveling my head, looking out the window at the amazingness of the world and the curling highway that took us through it. I thought about what I knew about mountains, skies, and roadbeds. And I editorialized, somewhere along the lines of this thought: I think that the presence of so much beauty in the world makes it hard to accept the documented facts, that we humans are degrading the planet and what lives on it, and that the world is fragile and all of us endangered.
Reconciling knowledge with perception is a mighty cognitive task. Sometimes we give up and privilege one over the other. Living in beauty offers more pleasure, yet insists on a kind of denial. Living in fact motivates action, yet engenders a grim outlook. (Remember Andie McDowell’s character in Sex, Lies, and Videotape and her obsession with the garbage barges?) Juggling both can be exhausting, even paralyzing.
Reader, beware: big leap ahead.
So, I’ve been thinking hard about this conflict between fact and feeling in the past few weeks, in a very personal way. It is hard to reconcile the fact of being laid off (and I do not doubt it) with the feeling of being successful and appreciated in my job and by my colleagues. And I have to deal with both realities in order to take some sort of action, an action which may be counter to my feelings. I would rather not go; I must go.
Several years ago, someone close to me was diagnosed with breast cancer at a time in her life when she was feeling fit, healthy, and happy. (Come to think of it, I have a few women in my life who fit this description.) I recall, vividly, how much her diagnosis perplexed her. I mean, every dimension of her experience of herself told her that she was healthy. And then along comes fact — in this instance, a laboratory pathology report — which presented her with another reality: Honey, you have a serious disease. Take a look at these cells and their condition.
And, whoa, what a mind fuck for that woman, and many other women, and men, and children, like her. Look in the mirror: you are not what you see.
It was really hard for that woman to take the next step, to choose treatment based on factual reality, and to put aside her experience of her own body: that it was well and even beautiful in its form and many capabilities.
But she did take the next step and she acted and she is alive today. Perhaps she is both sadder and stronger. Those are the twins of wisdom.
While what I am experiencing now is so minor in comparison to cancer or the degradation of the earth — really, honestly, I know that — I am finding it difficult right now to adopt one holistic, integrated view of my experience.
To act, I must not only accept the crisis, this conflict between fact and feeling (what I’m calling the “You’re great, now please go” effect, perhaps akin to the “I’m healthy; I’m sick” one or the “Beautiful, broken planet” one), but I have to be willing to act on both: to hold on to the feeling of success while acting on the concrete loss of employment.
Man, this is hard.