Beautiful, Terrible World

Out of the window last week, I watched a bald eagle drawing slow circles high in a cloudless sky. From another window, today, I can see a pink fog of flowers crowning the gnarled old cherry trees on the street adjacent. Spring is blooming all around us, and we are all pinned in place, staring out of windows at the signs of warmth and renewal. On this street we also (mostly at night) see or hear young adults at the train station or strolling down the street with friends, refusing to keep the quarantine. They laugh or fight, convinced like all young people that death will never come for them. But our biggest window by far is the digital one, allowing us to collectively witness corruption, the mishandling of an unprecedented crisis, and the devaluing of human life by our governmental system. It all brings back a thought that has occured to me over the past few years with exponential frequency: what a beautiful and terrible world we live in. It’s not an original thought. It’s hardly even a fully formed sentiment, just an observation that strikes with the force of a brick to the chest. You can find it in Marquez and in Vonnegut and in Tolstoy and in Morrison, it’s in every Dutch still life painting and every newscast of disaster, natural and otherwise.

By Rachel Ruysch (Konstnär, 1664-1665) Amsterdam, Nederland – LSH 86742 (hm_dig4506_3718), Public Domain,

In this state of astonishment, I find it exceptionally hard to make art. I’ve heard artists express joy at finally having time for the studio, but others have less time due to childcare obligations. I can barely imagine making art right now of any consequence. The impulse for me comes from thoughtful practice, the careful and dispassionate turning over of a problem. And I’m just not feeling thoughtful right now. I am gaping out of all kinds of windows in disbelief–seemingly incapable of the combination of curiosity and distance that it takes to process the larger world. I am gaping at the horror of death, and the casual cruelty of people, and I am gaping at the impassivity of the beautiful natural world around us, and at the heroism that keeps doctors and nurses and grocery store workers and delivery drivers going to work day after day. Holding these intense and intensely opposite truths in my heart at the same time has turned me into a set of eyes staring with incomprehension at the world. 

I don’t have to make my hands work right now, when the only thing they’re capable of producing is a stutter. They’re too busy with other tasks anyway– teaching first grade math and writing, reading children’s books and making food for my family, doing laundry and so many dishes. In this emotional state, when the wideness of the world is overwhelming, the best thing I find is to narrow my scope to its smallest possible size, to shut the window a bit and focus on the small stuff. “Some humans ain’t human, some people ain’t kind,” as John Prine sings, but my favorite description in that song is about what’s in those “human’s” hearts, “a broken popsicle, some ice cubes with hair.” It’s a small image but it’s the right size for me right now. Someday, with distance, I might have more to say.

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