What was it -- that burning, that amazement, that endless insufficiency

Updated: Jan 1, 2020

"What was it -- that burning, that amazement, that endless insufficiency, that sweet, that deep, that radiant feeling of tears welling up? What was it?" -~R.M. Rilke

At the closing the year, exhortations to reflect and to strategize for the year ahead abound. We might assess the past year for its joys and sorrows, its successes or its shortcomings. We might see the past year as cause for gratitude or as reason to be glad for a new decade as a kind of fresh start. But perhaps you'll join me in a new way of assessing the passage of a year. Consider, on this New Years Eve, when in the past year did your breath catch in your throat, did you feel "the chills" over a piece of music, a line in a book, or revelation from a friend for family member? When did you feel moved to teariness, not from devastation, but because you simply, truly were moved?


"I can barely conceive of a type of Beauty in which there is no melancholy." ~Baudelaire


When I read that quote by Baudelaire for the first time, only very recently, the breath caught in my throat. And my self cried, "Yes! This!" This is a truth I've long felt at my core. Those who have known me for a long time have likely observed my appreciation of melancholy in music, in literature, in film, in art. It is a bit of joke among some of my friends and family members that I enjoy things sometimes with a touch of bittersweetness.


Perhaps the passing of this year leaves you with regrets, perhaps you a carrying a great sorrow, or the discomfort of dreams deferred. And while I would never wish to diminish the pain any one of us feels, I would press us to consider how very much beauty is often bound up in sorrow. Art is frequently borne out of some kind of melancholy, a longing, a love lost, a desire for change or for truth that squeezes the soul and produces something new, something sublime.

When I think of those moments in the past year, when I got "choked up," when I felt the welling up of tears, sensed a tingle along my spine, I notice the presence of two qualities: truth and bittersweetness, and the result: beauty and art. When these ingredients come together, my soul ignites, my breath stops ever so briefly, I am jostled out of autopilot and made fully aware of my aliveness: of my ability to feel and to feel deeply. John Knowles expressed this evocative jumble of emotions exquisitely in A Separate Peace.


"I wanted to break out crying from stabs of hopeless joy, or intolerable promise, or because these mornings were too full of beauty for me, because I knew of too much hate to be contained in a world like this."


If ever there was a time in my lifespan when this quote fits, surely it is right now, when we are confronted by hate as a daily normal, and yet, when joy, "intolerable promise" and beauty nevertheless continue to besiege our senses. Life is both. We would wish, sometimes, to dispense with the hate, with the sorrow, with the pain and suffering. And why wouldn't we? But the great redemptive truth of life is that beauty is often the child of pain as it intersects with truth and is remade. Baudelaire also wrote, "You have given me your mud, and I have turned it to gold."

The stuff of beauty is often made of mud: of the earthy, the difficult, the complex, of uncomfortable truths and realities, turned into things of value: cosmos created out of chaos, love straining up and outward beyond the thorns of hate. Triumphing.

Let me tell you a few moments I'm remembering from this year that made the hairs on the back of my neck prickle to attention, caused my breathing to take notice, and I hope you will tell me some of yours.


On the fourth of July when our extended family gathered for a cookout, I stood on our farmer's porch, looking out over our yard, lush, green, and decorated to celebrate, and I saw my father and my uncle side-by-side in lawn chairs, looking like they were solving the world's problems, like old times. The old and the current collided: memories became part of the present, and I choked up. "This is something I've been missing and longing for, I thought: this coming together of beloved family, this recreation of joyful Independence Days from childhood." Notice that here is a touch of wistfulness; there are traces of sorrow bound up in this beautiful moment. And I'm okay with that. In fact, I am thankful for these moments when I am overcome with the emotions of being human and loving and aching and being grateful for what was while appreciating what is, or while soulfully straining for what still might be.


The next choking-up moment this year happened when our eldest daughter and I attended a production of "Hamilton" in London. The whole musical is very emotional for us both, but we did not anticipate the directorial decision at the very end of the play, to have Hamilton's wife, Eliza, gaze upward, gasp, and run forward a few paces, arm outstretched, as if she'd seen her husband, Alexander Hamilton from beyond the grave. When we would have expected the curtain to have closed, Eliza rushed forward, voice stopping in her throat, face straining upward like she'd just seen her love. The musical ended with this suggestion of their reunion, just a hint, and the play closed. Imogen and I looked at each other, both with lumps in our throats and tears welling up in our eyes. Again, melancholy. And beautiful. Powerful.


And the last breath-catching moment occurred just this week while listening to the first song from the gorgeous, thought-provoking, call-to-action album, "Spell Songs," which is based on The Lost Words project by Robert MacFarlane and Jackie Morris. The song, sung beautifully with folksy intonations, by singer, songwriter Karine Polwart, is called "Heartwood." The song is told from the perspective of a tree about to be chopped down, and this stanza did it for me (and for Imogen also):


"I drink the rain

I eat the sun

I gift the breath that fills yours lungs

I hear the roaring engine thrum

But I cannot run."


Now, maybe you have to listen to the song to get the full, emotional impact of those lyrics, but believe me, they pack a punch. And again, sorrow is bound up in this beauty.

As we get ready for the new year, even a new decade, why not take time to reflect on what moved you to tears this year, what tingled your spine, what stopped your breath in your throat? And when you remember those moments, try to identify, what was it? As Rilke asks, "What was it?... that radiant feeling of tears welling up? What was it?" For in answering that question, we begin to understand what makes us tick, what sets our souls afire, what speaks truth and beauty to us. I'd wager many of us will find that some of these memories are tinged with sadness, but it is not a hopeless sadness that leads to demoralization. Rather, these moments, in their unbridled ability to make us feel, remind us of what it means to be alive. I'll close out this New Years Eve post with another favorite quotation, this time from Saint Irenaeus, from the early second century.


"The glory of God is man fully alive."


Happy New Year, dear reader. Happy new decade. As we consider the year ahead, we can look forward with joyful anticipation, knowing that though there will, no doubt, be some hard times and sorrow, when we are open to life -- in all its startling ranges of experience -- we can remember that beauty can be found amid the suffering and art can be wrestled from the mud.



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