Sunday, June 22, 2014

Day 1,469: Beauty, Inexactly

A few months ago, I sent out a few requests on social media for people to tell me about an experience they had had with art that was meaningful for them. It didn't matter to me what kind of art it was--I was more interested in WHY the art had affected the person. I received some fascinating responses, along these lines:

it brought me closer to God
it helped me answer the question, "why is this happening?"
it reminded me what a beautiful instrument the human body is
it inspired me to feel the joy and unencumbered emotion I had felt as a child
it uplifted my soul and spirit
it brought me out of my depression and anxiety better than therapy
it made me want to celebrate life with hundreds of strangers
it moved me to tears--the artistry, the passion
it allowed me to give something healing to someone else through my art
it reminded me how it felt to be alive
it changed my view of language
it made me see that beauty can come from pain
it made me want to create art of my own

I have been struggling with my own relationship with art recently, which is why I asked the question. I have always devoured art--words and music especially--for as long as I can remember. I have more poetry books than most people could imagine existing. And yet, recently, I have not wanted to have anything to do with the kind of art I have enjoyed all my life--the deep stuff, the stuff that gave me the moniker of "nerd" forever and no matter how else I might have appeared to the outside world. Instead, today, I want to listen to pop music, read mindless books, watch violent action movies. In the back of my mind, this has bothered me, though I have told myself it was because I was so busy, so consumed with everything that happens every day in this life, with this family, this job, this disease. But it has bothered me because I know that is not the real reason.

I have avoided art in an attempt to avoid feeling like that--like those words above--to avoid feeling things as strongly as I always have, to avoid the message beneath all of those sentiments that were passed along to me: to avoid acknowledging the slippery slope between life and death, joy and grief, beauty and pain.

It is so easy to get lost in everything else that surrounds us--all of this IRONY. It permeates everything. Sometimes it is hard to know if people do things because they like them or because they are engaging in some postmodern riff on other people and what they used to like. I mean, do hipsters actually enjoy PBR? Do they realize that their uncles drank it not out of irony, but maybe because they were broke? Sometimes I feel like everything involving self-expression is just an excuse for irony, and I wonder if people who are growing up today realize that their very real memories will turn into self-aware references years later.

And then--then, I remember art.

And I realize this. We live in a paradox. Our society is filled with so much abundance, and so much poverty. So much privilege, and so much disenfranchisement. Every attempt at eradicating something evil from our midst is met with some form of disdain: we pay wealthy white men to sneer at universities' attempts to get a handle on sexual assault issues on campus because of the "privilege of victimhood" or whatever the hell he said. And while George Will has been penning this reactionary bluster for decades, there is something to the notion that we seem incapable of even taking our pain seriously.

We are so intent on being positive, and happy, we are so obsessed with the rose colored glasses, that I'm not sure it's easy to see beauty anymore. If you feel great joy, or passion, if you are earnest, you run the risk of being teased, not taken seriously, you have a lot of eyes rolling at you, and you eventually might learn to keep it to yourself. You want to know: where is the LOVE? in everyday life, where is the intensity, the sincerity?

It is in art. And so often, the focus of art is pain.

Yes, there is much in art that focuses on beauty, and love, and joy. But it is rare that those emotions are expressed in art without some kind of grounding in suffering. Most of the time, we act as if suffering does not exist. We live in a society that seems hellbent on believing that suffering is a character flaw, it is something you choose or something you make up, that it is not REAL, and that if it is, it is a fate worse that death. It is this belief that makes people terrified of illness and disease. My own grandmother was so afraid of her breast cancer that she watched it grow for a year, waiting for it to kill her. She was not expecting her doctor to tell her that cancer doesn't work like that, because:

you have to suffer first.

Art allows us to suffer out loud, without anyone telling us to get over it, without anyone asking us to prove that it's true, without anyone telling us to just meditate, without anyone waiting for a happy ending.

Art gives us worldliness and Godliness. It makes us feel the core of ourselves.

It cannot be made a mockery of, not really, not in the end.

I say all of this as a sort of explanation. This has been my art. I say things here that do not even sound like the person I sound like on the street. People rarely have casual conversations with me and then say "wow. what you just said helped me through my darkest time." "when I read your words it is like reading my own mind, if I knew how to be honest with myself." But people have said those exact things to me about this.

And yet, I have been crowding other art out of my life, because the things I feel when I am honest here, and in the poetry I write that I rarely share with anyone, are painful even when they are good. Every moment of beauty can be a sharp reminder of what I might miss. I start to read wonderful and heartbreaking novels and then I put them away.

And now, now I want my art back.

It is not because I am out of the woods. It is not because I am done, or because I am healed, or "past" cancer, or anything else. It is just because I miss it. I feel alive every time I put one foot in front of the other, I feel the beauty and pain in the insignificant countless times every day, because I have faced death five times, but that is not good enough anymore.

I need to be reminded that other people feel it too.

I remember being young, and keeping journals. I remember how I rarely wrote when I was happy. I remember that my best poems are the saddest ones. And I know that we have been given a range of human emotions for a reason, and that we should not ignore those that are hard to feel in favor of those that are easy to feel. I remember when I wasn't afraid of grief.

When I was a teenager, I bought a poetry anthology called "To Woo and to Wed." It is a terrible name for a wonderful book full of poems about love and marriage. As I began to contemplate this "wedding" I am having in the fall to celebrate our 10 year anniversary, I dusted this book off and paged through it to see if I could find something appropriate for the occasion. I may or may not have succeeded in that goal, but more importantly, I found this:

All the pages I had circled back in 1993, all of the passages I had underlined. I found that back then, at the height of my youth, I thought the best marriage poems were the ones about divorce and widowhood. There wasn't a single page marked up in the chapter entitled "So Much Happiness." I was 18 years old. I was in love, though I didn't know it yet. I had been in love before. I had my life ahead of me, all of it, stretched forward like a promise. and these are the types of things I thought were beautiful then:

But let there be spaces in your togetherness
And let the winds of the heavens dance between you.
(Khalil Gibran)

so she wanted to fix a violet moment

of light to keep, a place she'd come
back to alone, wherever she stayed.
(Gail Mazur)

Footsteps become people under streetlamps.
(Douglas Dunn)

...I want things
to happen to me the proper size.
(Linda Gregg)

And yet who believes
that what he's doing now IS his adventure
(John Galassi)

There are many things in the world and you
are one of them.
(Robert Penn Warren)

You are not beautiful, exactly.
You are beautiful, inexactly.
(Marvin Bell)

We have weathered the wet of twenty years.
(Robert Lowell)

Romance is a world, tiny and curved, reflected in a spoon.
(Amy Gerstler)

I'd make you oak and linden as
they were and call the shade a silence in your name.
(Michael Blumenthal)

Orchards, we linger here because
Women we love stand propped in your green prisons.
(James Merrill)

Marriage is not
a house or even a tent

it is before that, and colder
(Margaret Atwood)

the prairie is a livable place, a place
for withstanding all kinds of weather,
and here's to the little hills,
the ones that take you by surprise
and the ones you'll need to invent.
(Stephen Dunn)

Twenty one years later, I find myself dog-earing pages from a chapter entitled "From Grief to Grief," as if somehow that could be an appropriate message as I renew the vows of love I shared with my husband ten years ago. I think of the poem we passed out as a wedding favor then, the poem about eating peaches: "From Blossoms." But what does that have to do with MARRIAGE, people may have asked?

There are days we live
as if death were nowhere
in the background, from joy
to joy to joy, from wing to wing,
from blossom to blossom to
impossible blossom, to sweet impossible blossom.
(Li-Young Lee)

That's what I want. I'm ready for that again, now.

And I found a poem that fits. I'm sure I will write one of my own, but in the meantime, I have found one. It is all of fifty three words. I'll read it to my husband, and I know that people will cry. Without irony, or shame. It's a poem that says, even in the midst of this (all of this, even this cancer, that was only a month old at the time of this photograph), this is what love's face looks like.


  1. Love this for so many reasons. Katrina and I at our wedding had Galway Kinnell's "Flying Home."

    "once the lover
    recognizes the other, knows for the first time
    what is most to be valued in another,
    from then on, love is very much like courage,
    perhaps it is courage, and even
    only courage."

    1. Yes. Have always loved Galway Kinnell. Sincerely.