1. She is nineteen, a sophomore at a university north of Los Angeles, taking a seminar on the British Romantic poets. The campus is perched on a cliff above the Pacific; she never tires of watching the gradations of blue and green and slate and—in the evenings—the colorless scintillations of sunset. Some weekends she drives south on Pacific Coast Highway till it curls into the Santa Monica tunnel; other weekends, north to Westward and Zuma beaches, sometimes all the way to County Line. Catalina Island visible on clear days, beyond that the ocean stretching to—where? Japan? She pictures her little car on the map, hugging the edge of the continent, water and cliff and sky all angles, vast and intimidating. She is insignificant in the universe, God a sublime, untouchable peak. On the stereo is a song by her new favorite band, the Indigo Girls: Georgia nights softer than a whisper, peach trees stitched across the land, farmland like a tapestry. She has never been to the South but the song paints it for her, softness and green curves. An intimate landscape. She feels nostalgic for a place she’s never seen, smoke from the chimneys meets its maker in the sky, God at rest in the tips of trees. Perhaps one might live there someday, make a home and raise children in Georgia’s hushed shade. Perhaps, too, this is what Shelley means by the difference between the beautiful and the sublime. She lives in the sublime, longs for the beautiful.
2. She is twenty-four, a doctoral student at Princeton, working on Wordsworth. Her favorite poet. She writes a long essay on The Ruined Cottage but it’s the Immortality Ode she keeps coming back to. Where does it go, all that magic from childhood? The fallings from us, the vanishings? Woolf’s moments of being, Joyce’s epiphanies, Wordsworth’s spots of time, yes, she thinks, yes—how they break in on us, unbidden; how they carry us back to the past, remind us of the connection we had to divinity, once. How apt the turn in the Ode: thanks be for those shadowy recollections, fountain light of all our day, with the power to make our noisy years seem moments in the being of the eternal Silence. Thanks to the years that bring the philosophic mind and on her headphones, during long runs, it’s still the Indigo Girls: This world falls on me, hopes of immortality, everywhere I turn, all the beauty just keeps shaking me. This world was meant for me. The Indigo Girls, she thinks, would totally get Wordsworth.
3. She is twenty-eight, with three children, ages three and two and six months. She is tired, indolent, has trouble getting out of bed. A neighbor’s baby is born with massive spinal defects and she cannot feel bad for the neighbor, or for the baby. (Why can’t she feel anything?) Acedia: one of the seven deadly sins, the mood in which the good wishes to play upon us but we have no string to respond. She is reading Merton’s Contemplative Prayer. He writes of the balance between contemplation and action, Mary and Martha, and she is all Mary and no Martha, trapped in her own head, self-absorbed. Narcissus. Rodin’s “Thinker.” Now I know a refuge never grows from a chin in a hand in a thoughtful pose, gotta tend the earth if you want a rose. Get up, she tells herself, listening to the song. Get your ass out of bed.
4. She is thirty-three and grieving. She has hurt those closest to her but doesn’t feel sorry for that, yet. She only misses the thing that caused the pain, the source of addiction. There are counselors, pastors, well-meaning friends, but she can only sit at her desk with her forehead pressed hard into the wood. She doesn’t cry, though wishes she could. She mostly just takes deep breaths. She is waiting for clarity, the black-and-white certainty she once had about what is right, and what is wrong, to settle back over her. For the ship of safety to come back and pick her up. It doesn’t return. She has sunk it. She goes, finally, to the doctors, takes walks on the mountain. Looks to her children, does the workouts, reads the Bible. But what if she is meant to learn (years later she will know this is the case) to embrace gray? What if God lives in the questions and not the answers; in the great ugly struggle itself, not in the finish, the win or loss? Perhaps she will live the same story, over and over, for the rest of her life. Perhaps it is the very struggle that will take her closer, and closer, to fine.
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