On the Sometimes Overwhelming Burden of Beauty
“Everyday I discover more and more beautiful things. It’s enough to drive one mad. I have such a desire to do everything, my head is bursting with it.” ~ Claude Monet
My grandparents have a subscription to National Geographic, and there are usually a few of the latest issues on a couple of end tables in their house. Sometime between Christmas and the dawn of 2014, I laid on the couch in their living room and read an article about a man who spent seven years walking – tracing our best guess of the path that mankind forged from Eden (not that he uses that name) through South America.
And then I put my coat on and went for a walk. (Not south, at least not intentionally.) Because sometimes the world is an oppressively big place.
We can look at all the similarities and mutual acquaintances and social media you like and sing songs about what a small world it is and appreciate that sentiment, but then you have to come back around to reality and admit that the world isn’t small at all. Not really.
It took one man seven years to walk around it, and he still only saw a fraction of it. There are pieces – big pieces – that no one has seen.
Husband came after me pretty quickly because it’s not like me to seek solitude, or to willfully submit myself to cold. He asked what was up, and I struggled then to put into words what I have struggled to put into words for as long as I can remember.
Because the story about Paul Salopek was just one more trigger. It happens from time to time, and I’ve started referring to them as my “existential moments,” ’cause I didn’t know how else to explain them. Not that I talk about it (ever), but words are kind of my reality, so everything has to have a word.
“I just feel so small sometimes,” I faltered. “It’s oppressive, but … in a good way. It’s comforting, but it’s alienating. Take language — they’re beautiful things, and there are hundreds of them, but I know one. I want to know them all. I feel like I’m wasting … something … if I don’t know them all …“
He held my hand and listened. Our shadows stretched and faded from one random street light to the next. I don’t know if he was quiet because I sounded crazy, or because he got it and there really aren’t words.
How many billions of people have walked the earth since Adam? Each one of them has a story — about living on the Tibetan plains, or dying on the beaches at Normandy, or working banana plantations in Central America. They have all hoped and despaired, won and wanted, struggled, overcome, and loved. They have all seen the same world through different eyes, and sometimes I feel this burden to know them all.
The map of constellations changes over my head every month and I never notice. There are flowers I could cultivate in my own yard that I’ve never seen. There are trees just two days away from me that pre-date Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling, and I have never touched them. There are cultures alive on the planet that I know nothing about, and food with flavors I’ve never imagined.
There are poems I have never read, paintings and photographs I have never seen, and there are moments when the enormity of it overwhelms me.
Sometimes I feel like I’m wasting it. Like all the history and all the possibilities and all the ideas and all the songs that I don’t know and have never heard pile on my shoulders and I feel the weight of them like a responsibility. Or a possibility. Or a countless list of opportunities that I am terrified I will miss.
I shrug off those times as my silly existential moments, because I don’t know what else to do with them. Because I know I’ll sound crazy if I talk or blog about them, and because I know the things that haunt me are impossible anyway.
Then I read this quote by maybe the very first artist I ever really knew:
Everyday I discover more and more beautiful things. It’s enough to drive one mad. I have such a desire to do everything, my head is bursting with it.
And it was like an old friend that I hadn’t spoken to in decades knocked on my door, and gave me a hug.
I still don’t really know how to put it into words, and I am going to stare long and hard at that blue “Publish” button before I ever decide if I let this loose (because I feel like it’s not saying enough, but it’s saying too much, and it should be written much better, or maybe committed to prose or spoken word, but I have to understand it before I can do that and to understand it, it has to be written) but I feel like I can start trying. And I feel like maybe I’m not the only one who does this.