Thursday, October 1, 2009

Hard Grace

I wonder sometimes if I'll ever get used to life as it really is, if I'll ever reconcile myself to the fact that it has little if anything in common with the dark, redolent landscapes suggested to me in my youth by the songs of Brahms and Schumann and the poetry they set. In my younger days, I imagined that I could recreate my life whole out of those ingredients, plus maybe a bowl of flowers, some macrobiotic groceries, red lipstick, and a thrift-store coat. Things seemed like so much more than what they were; I could practically feel the molecules moving along the surfaces of the created world, and I expected objects to live and breathe and tell me their stories. I also imagined that I was the translator of phenomena, that I needed to make the hidden stories of things known through my own artistic work. I thought that if things looked a certain way, smelled a certain way, and sounded a certain way in my daily experience, everything would be all right. In short, I believed that aesthetics trumped nature, nurture, neurosis, and the whole host of other uncontrollable variables that end up carving a life out of the seemingly endless run of days. Oh, and grace. I didn't know much about it, nor about mercy; but I did have the sense of an invisible thread of goodness that somehow tugged me safely through some shocking and desperate situations.

But grace is not always aesthetically satisfying. It's hard to distinguish sometimes between the gift of humility, which is like a long exhalation of relief, and the feeling of being kicked down howling into the dirt. Grace has led me further away from the beautiful perceptions that used to make up my days -- the vetiver perfume worn by a bohemian German woman who sat next to me at the ballet one day when I was fourteen, the swirl of cream spiraling down into a glass of black coffee, the delightful label on a can of imported tomato paste, so beautiful that I removed it and pinned it up on the wall -- and deeper into the repetitive, drone-like tasks that actually do make up the days of most adults.

I sometimes think that the adults in my life recognized certain proclivities in me as a child and trained me for them, with the result that I lived as an artist and lacked practicality almost entirely. I also behaved in ways that were hurtful to those around me. I think the adults felt themselves to have been thwarted by responsibility and circumstance from paying court to beauty as they had wished to, and so trained me to do it for them. But in the end, like most people, I eventually had to learn the hard lessons of adulthood; I just did so later than most, and with more resentment.

When everything whispered beauty to me, I lived in a kind of perfumed solitude, which has devolved now into ordinary everyday loneliness. And it's almost a year since we moved away from New York, and I still can't drive.

But Mark Strand wrote in his beautiful poem "The Continuous Life":

What of the neighborhood homes awash
In a silver light, of children hunched in the bushes,
Watching the grown-ups for signs of surrender,
Signs that the irregular pleasures of moving
From day to day, of being adrift on the swell of duty,
Have run their course? O parents, confess
To your little ones the night is a long way off
And your taste for the mundane grows; tell them
Your worship of household chores has barely begun;
Describe the beauty of shovels and rakes, brooms and mops;
Say there will always be cooking and cleaning to do,
That one thing leads to another, which leads to another;
Explain that you live between two great darks, the first
With an ending, the second without one, that the luckiest
Thing is having been born, that you live in a blur
Of hours and days, months and years, and believe
It has meaning, despite the occasional fear
You are slipping away with nothing completed, nothing
To prove you existed. Tell the children to come inside,
That your search goes on for something you lost—a name,
A family album that fell from its own small matter
Into another, a piece of the dark that might have been yours,
You don't really know. Say that each of you tries
To keep busy, learning to lean down close and hear
The careless breathing of earth and feel its available
Languor come over you, wave after wave, sending
Small tremors of love through your brief,
Undeniable selves, into your days, and beyond.

Above: The Table (1925) by Pierre Bonnard.


lissla lissar said...

I'm still waiting to learn that life is the small, repeated tasks and struggles, and not the grand, sweeping heroism and sacrifice and valour of novels and epic poetry. I want the great victories without ever struggling over the little ones- being charitable, keeping my mouth closed, sweeping a floor, getting up early without complaining.

Do you remember when Father Elijah tell Billy that we all long to be great heroes, but that what God wants for us is no false glory, just small faithfulness?

I want the mountain-top all the time, to do all my unpleasant tasks in a fervor of passionate self-sacrifice, which is often self-congratulation. I am grateful that that is not permitted.

Pentimento said...

I think that my life has to get smaller and more enclosed, that that is the only way I'll ever be able to bring anything good out of it -- the complete opposite of the expansiveness I used to live for. That enclosure is very painful but I know it's necessary.

Maclin said...

"I wonder sometimes if I'll ever get used to life as it really is."

Well, at the risk of sounding awfully negative: I never have. I don't think that's necessarily a bad thing, depending on what you do with it. It can lead one into trouble, of course, but it can also be used as a spur, a reminder of where we're really heading.

Pentimento said...

I think the danger is that it's so easy to mistake the beauty of the created world for the beauty of God, when it's only a dim reflection, and one that we can drown in.