“Let everything happen to you: beauty and terror.”
— Rainer Maria Rilke, 1905
“Here is the world. Beautiful and terrible things will happen. Don’t be afraid.”
— Frederick Buechner, 1973
“It was terrifying and beautiful, like all my favorite journeys.”
— Melissa Febos, Girlhood, 2021
We were sitting at a café where seagulls loitered. Perched atop lampposts and umbrellas, they waited for tables to empty so they could swoop down for the remains of food, knocking dishes to the ground in the process and making the servers scurry about. I read the three quotes to my dad and asked why these two words, in particular, were always together? He applauded a diving gull as it snatched a strip of ham and broke two glasses and he said that maybe it’s the asymmetry of the words that is at the heart of the meaning. None of the authors chose terror/calm or beautiful/ugly or any other more traditional pairs of antonyms. The asymmetry, perhaps, can hold both sentiments without any contradiction. It was October, a sunny, leafy month and at times my heart was aching. As we talked I thought of the two books I was reading, both with lines that echoed this asymmetry:
“There is always room for at least two truths” and: “I can hold both of these stories inside me. There is room for one in the other.”
My grandma died on the last day of summer. It was a long process, and my mom cared for her, and cheered her on, and did more than I’ll ever know, spending the majority of a year and a half away from her home, all with a grace and sense of humor and pragmatism I so admire. My sisters remembered that we should send flowers, and I volunteered to do the ordering, my heart a little out of sorts for many reasons, and I was happy for the small task. A few hours after I placed the online order I was sitting on my bed, feeling far away from myself and from so many people, when I saw my phone light up with an incoming call, area code 505. I stopped crying to answer and the most comforting mid-America accent washed through the speaker, straight into my bones.
After we hung up I felt a tug of excitement in my chest, because how strange and neat life can be, the oddness and joy muddled in these unexpected ways. There I was, with some small sorrows in a small Spanish city, talking to a stranger in New Mexico, who was telling me, with one of those voices that sound like they are inviting you into their home, how hard it is being a delivery person these days. People don’t answer their doors or phones anymore, except maybe to complain about a delivery, but she was very upbeat about the whole thing, and she was calling, she said, because she wanted to make sure there wasn’t a certain time for the mums to be delivered, just in case they needed to make it to a memorial service, she’d hate for them to be late (as though the chrysanthemums were valued guests and not flowers) but there wasn’t an hour listed on the ticket and she had some other deliveries to attend to, and so she thought she should check. She chatted on, just like that, the occasional comma and no periods. I wanted to keep her on the line, but she sounded busy, and so we thanked each other, and I felt warmer.
For most of the week, it wasn’t as rainy in the Pyrenees as we had worried it would be, except for the day with the steepest and longest climbs. It was wildly beautiful, and even my lumpy attitude couldn’t diminish the enchantment, but after we had each fallen at least once and our knees started to inquire about all the up and down and our socks became sponges, dispositions began to take a dip. As we came to a flat stretch our new friend, who had hiked ahead of us, emerged from the fog. He must have felt as battered as we did but he cheerfully took a roll of cookies from his pack: “An Oreo to lift your spirits?” he asked.
An older man holding a set of wooden poles and a plastic bucket was saying goodbye to another older man, who had his own poles and bucket. They arranged to meet at the same place in two days. I was curious what the sticks and buckets were for and, being new to this city and feeling a little lonely, I interrupted the man as he was taking his leave and asked what they were up to. Hunting for octopus, he responded, as he very quickly and kindly adjusted to being accosted by a nosy foreigner with a funny accent. He went on to explain that they hardly ever catch anything—there are lots of octopus fishers and very few octopuses it seems. We continued chatting and he said that he has three children. One daughter just down the street, a son in Barcelona and another in France who has children, so he doesn’t see his grandchildren all that often. He’s retired and has lived in Gijón his whole life, he said, and loves it. With that, we wished each other a good afternoon, and he turned left toward home and I kept on the boardwalk, soothed by the brief connection. Talk of cephalopods and getting a glimpse at another human’s world were, it turned out, much more interesting than the clouds building in my mind.
I’m not sure this is true, but I think it is: my favorite book I read this year is Klara and the Sun. I read it, whenever possible, in patches of sunlight, oftentimes on the east side of the beach where the sun lands with the most generosity in this cloudy place. In it you’ll find gentleness and care and loneliness and connection. I realized long ago that individuals are not so very unique, and then this book sent a gentle hook into my heart and reminded me of something else I also find true:
Mr. Capaldi believed there was nothing special inside Josie that couldn’t be continued. He told the Mother he’d searched and searched and found nothing like that. But I believe now he was searching in the wrong place. There was something very special, but it wasn’t inside Josie. It was inside those who loved her.
Even though none of us is exactly singular, the context we’re in—those around us—is. I live with a person who, no matter what, will happily make me an omelet, putting his whole heart into it so that it’s just right. I get to have virtual happy hours with my best gal pals, and I have friends who send the liveliest videos of their dogs and bookshelves and shining faces every day. I have a dad who doesn’t mind beating me at online chess whenever I want, and a brother who will (one day) finish the scarf he is knitting me. I have sisters who are one of my primary sources of strength (no pressure!) and a mom who—magically—knows from 5,000 miles away if I’m having an off day.
It is so easy to see in my life which direction the asymmetry leans. Beauty abounds. I’ve got it in spades: it is there first thing as I watch freighters march out to sea in the morning fog; it is going on a run in a healthy body and then afterward dashing into the salt water, arms raised in a futile attempt to not feel the sting, that wonderful sting, of the cold water. Holy smokes, is it all around me, and there it is, too, in the uncomfortable feelings, the wave troughs and the drizzle. And, of course, the height of the beauty, especially in the more difficult moments, isn’t the landscape or fresh-baked bread or the Spanish language. Recently I watched a New Zealander’s documentary about the Pacific Crest Trail and I learned a Maori proverb, which begins with the question: What is the most important thing in the world? And the answer goes like this:
It is the people, it is the people, it is the people.