Yesterday the dog and I went on our favorite run. For half an hour before I laced my shoes, I walked around moaning, “I don’t want to go. Don’t make me go.” There was no one “making” me go, unless you count the way Phoebe paced behind me, showing the “great red tear that makes us so sorry for noble dogs,” as J.M. Barrie calls it. At last, with what seemed incredible mental effort, my shoes were on, my excuses over and we were padding out the door. Predictably, within the first 400 yards, I wondered what all my fuss had been about.
It was impossibly beautiful out there. In the cooler, shadowy places, the hillsides were blue tongues of lupine, red sparks of Indian Paintbrush. And in one spot, as I rounded a tight corner, I startled a flock of finches. They flurried up, a chittering cumulous. First a few. Then more and more. Until scores had burst from cover in the lupine, wings glinting in the low sun, and disappeared into the dark shadows of a lone ponderosa. I felt over-awed by the sight, filled with a glad in-rush, new-born. And yet in the same moment, something snagged my heart, that thing we call “a pang,” that sense beauty beheld is passing even as we encounter it.
“For to come upon warblers in early May
Was to forget time and death:
How they filled the oriole’s elm, a twittering restless
cloud, all one morning,” —Theodore Roethke, North American Sequence
I love the beauty in these lines from Roethke. But I don’t believe them. Warblers in May or finches startled from among the lupine do not make one forgetful of time’s passage. They do not obscure the dark stile at the bend in the road. Despite his statement to the contrary, I don’t for a moment think Roethke forgot these companions, else why bring them up? Beauty is twined with loss, inseparable.
Every shiver of joy has a pull of loss in it, a rip in the seam. I can catch the glorious up-well of gladness. But I can’t keep it. Like the finches, it glints gold for a moment then disappears into a bank of shadow.
“Joy’s trick is to supply
Dry lips with what can cool and slake,
Leaving them dumbstruck also with an ache
Nothing can satisfy.” – Richard Wilbur, “Hamlen Brook”
Richard Wilbur gets it right. It is the signature trick of joy to both slake and leave behind an unsatisfiable ache. Like a koan that defies the mind’s desire to parse and explicate, the aftereffect of joy is paradox. In the middle of the finch storm, I had a deep sense of having been met and having been left. Filled and emptied. At home in the world and an exile from my heart’s true homeland. I’m straining here, which is why the wiser Wilbur used “dumbstruck” and avoided the muddle.
We are made for this world.
We are not made for this world.
Can both of these be true?
At every turn, consciousness tugs us in both directions. This wonder and wound is a birthright that, however many steps we take, we can’t outrun.
Here’s to cultivating wonder,
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P.P.S. Last week’s Consider prompted some discussion on the Back Page about our faith journeys. Pour a cup of tea and enjoy the meander.