A life celebrating beauty – seeking it out, sharing it, creating it…training yourself to find it in the darkest places – it’s not a bad plan.
But as a word beauty can sound dull or superficial; unsuitable to the moment it is meant to define. It is not uncommon in our lives and language for the words we pluck from the scene of an adventure — with the tips of our grasping fingers — to fall short of conveying the emotion felt. Yet the memory of the experience is engraved on us in more than words. The happening does not simply fade into our story, it carves symbols into our psyche and lines them with ink. Even without the symmetry of imbued words to describe it for another, the lesson is not lessened and the profundity still yawns beneath us effervescent with superlatives, triumphs, and monsters.
Example one – “Deep” :
Around the age of sixteen a group of us from school met at a local beach under the auspices of a “Senior Skip Day”. One of our number had a father with a boat (or a moderately-sized pleasure craft) and had arranged for said father to take us out on said boat. I’m not sure who made the plans and why we didn’t arrange to meet at a place with a dock, but shortly after we had polished ourselves in fragrant oils in compliment to the radiant sand and waves of blinding photons our boat’s operator signaled from 100 feet offshore. One hundred feet is a placeholder here because I don’t really know distance well. It was farther than I was comfortable swimming, yet close enough my classmates knew it was the right father / right boat. The girls chirped and took flight for the water. The boys cried out and gave chase.
I pondered Jaws and Jaws 2 and Jaws 3D.
Then I considered being left behind to miss out and ran toward my fear.
As a swimmer, I have always performed better under the water than on the surface. On that day, my sloppy strokes and terrible rhythm barely helped me keep pace with my classmates. In addition to bad form, I was wearing contact lenses – very expensive, hard contact lenses – so most of my journey through the lightly splishing waves was spent with my eyes tightly shut. I relied on the weak sonar feedback of friends splashing through the water to guide me to the boat. (Much as a hungry shark would.)
When the sound changed from splashing to dripping and lapping, I took a break from my labors to look around. I was treading water a few arms length away from the group. My friends were only visible as parts – butts and legs climbing or scrabbling over the back of the boat, heads and shoulders bobbing for their turn. Then I looked down.
The water was so clear I could see the little hillocks left behind by currents pulling and pushing across the ocean floor. Visible too were the nets of sunlight weaving through the refraction of wavelets. I turned slightly to mark my distance to the shore and took in a narrow reef stretching its bony slalom south.
It was the reef that brought the scene into perspective. Our staging area in the water was deep. At some point while swimming, the bottom of my familiar beach had fallen out and left me dangling atop the expanse of an ocean. I gasped, twice, as though filling my lungs could counter the feeling of space unfolding around me and taking with it the comfort of ground and stronger gravity. My chest constricted, pushing out lungfuls of fragrant sea-breeze and terror.
From a place outside my leaden body, I saw myself as a Looney-Tune with churning legs of propeller strength. My own tension made me lighter than the surface of the Atlantic. In a desperate surge, I flung myself over the side of the boat.
The rest of “Senior Skip Day” was a blur. I’m sure we had fun, though maybe everyone else did and I just watched. For I knew that when the boat engine stopped again, I would have to dive back into that crystal-clear water and swim to shore.
Example two – “The stars are out”:
In my late twenties, I found myself in the fortunate position of being on a road trip from Houston to Flagstaff. Back in those days I still had a love for adventure, and my life had been tame enough that a road trip to somewhere new counted as a good one. Joining me in my travels were my son, age 11, and an ex-boyfriend of about three and a half years (our term together prior to his “Ex” designation, not his age). The Ex and I, who we will call Jon Doe, had been on a few road trips together resulting in a slight distrust, on his part, of my judgment skills.
I liked to follow my curiosity, which sometimes took us off the map.
Even with twenty more years of life under my belt, it is my ardent belief that it is not possible to be Lost (yes, with a capital L) as long as there are paved roads beneath your tires and they don’t lead you to barricades preventing one from falling off the planet. Eventually, you’ll find your way again – the time in between is the driving bonus.
Dallas had been a weekend of Amusement Park Convention-eering. Houston had followed with an overnight stay in the home of a very intense member of my family. Then we pointed the car [north]west and aimed for Thanksgiving 1998 in Flagstaff, AZ.
I always enjoyed the driving portion of a road trip. Back then I could manage an eight to twelve hour stretch on my own, especially if most of them were at night. Unfortunately, driving in the hazy sun of a bright morning or afternoon puts me right to sleep. I drove us out of Houston until the sun got high and yawns ate my face. At Wichita Falls we switched drivers and I napped across the backseat to the tunes of Siouxsie & The Banshees and my son spotting VWs. We stopped in Amarillo for dinner and by Tucumcari, NM I was the driver once more. I’m fairly certain I slept through the most boring part of Texas.
When the sun went down, New Mexico became a magical and mysterious place. I’m a Florida girl, so right off the bat I was impressed with the altitude. I can also be counted as an unwilling suburbanite, so passing from one brightly lit Trucker’s Paradise to the next fifty miles down the deserted ebon highway felt like space travel. I actually suffered a moment’s panic when driving on a particularly raven stretch because the engine of the compact Ford we had rented was bellowing like a cornered rhinoceros. We were in the middle of the kind of nowhere that actually resembles nowhere – like a hole in space-time with no sense of momentum or inertia. When the car made the noise, I gently tapped the brakes in fear and it quieted immediately. A short while later, feeling confident the noise was a fluke, I reset the cruise control and scanned for a radio station. Not long after, the rhinoceros returned accompanied by a tractor-trailer in the next lane.
His running lights and the added illumination of his headlights put things into perspective. We were climbing a fairly steep incline on that midnight highway; the poor little Ford was trying like hell to maintain my cruising speed but it didn’t have enough power or dilithium crystals.
The following bit of driving was a slog. I had to accelerate/ease off/accelerate for at least a light year – gripping the steering wheel tightly and pulling the yoke of gravity with my neck and shoulders. Luckily, my passengers were asleep, so nobody saw me stretch.
Then everything changed. One moment we were pulling to break free of Earth and the next we were sliding back down the well. The darkness parted, or someone ripped the cloth off the planet with a single tug, and laid out before me was the light of every star the Earth has ever been in the path of.
My initial reaction was disbelief. I craned my neck to see out of the Ford’s windows but there was too much sky out there to fit in the car’s cut-outs. I was also accelerating [very fast] without touching the pedal. The emerging universe had revealed yellow caution signs to down shift and take note of your runaway truck ramps. I struggled for a time with my fear of hurtling off the side of a mountain and my desire to see Space.
As fate would have it, there was a large area a short distance from the sharp peak designated for truckers who needed to [safely] take a break from the bowel-shaking drive. There were about 30 long parking spaces and a cabin of convenience. I pulled the Ford into a car-sized space and deliberated a moment. I wanted to wake up my son to come look at the sky with me, but that would risk waking up Jon Doe who would bitch about the deviation. I whispered Adam’s name so softly it didn’t wake him, then I exited the car with ninja stealth.
I had a moment to steal from the universe and I wasn’t going to miss it.
Wrapped tightly in a wool coat, I stepped onto the Ford’s bumper and perched on the trunk lid. Then I just gave in to the cosmos and leaned back on the frigid rear window. My chest expanded with suffocating awe as photons that had been in another galaxy not a moment before bombarded my eyes. They left trails of wonder on my brain as the vast sky overhead tried to convince me I was falling up into a bio-luminescent ocean. I held my coat collar closed over my throat while trying to breathe and trying not to cry. Amidst all of the emotions whirling inside me as I simply looked up at the night, was a sense of being cheated. This boundless vista was always waiting just beyond the glare of light from our self-absorbed lives. I had lived 28 years but was only just seeing it. I wanted to study it, memorize it, dip my hand in and swirl it around. Forget road trips, I wanted to go there.
Adam walked up to me and asked why I was laying on the car. I pointed to the sky. “The stars are out.” We stole half a moment more from the universe before the magic was dispelled by a cranky voice of reason.