It is the nature of my work to meet important people and take them to exotic locations. I recognized this client right away because she was wearing a tiara, a princess who had come to survey her kingdom. The security of her reign was evident; the two people who accompanied her (grandparents, as I learned) clearly adored her, felt that her tenth birthday was cause even for such an extravagant celebration as this airplane ride. As is often the case with little princesses in our day, there were two castles to visit, separated by many miles, reflecting an unhealed fracture of the royal family. She delighted over each of them, though they seemed quite modest to me. Her grandfather delighted in her delight and when we landed he shook my hand and gave me more money than I asked for though I sensed that, for him, it was a princely sum.
My friend Chris and I recently picked up another little princess, to carry her home from a hospital town to a far corner of Upper Michigan. Her pretty red curls and glittering eyes made the diagnosis seem unlikely; how could a child so beautiful and loved be losing a liver?
It is the contrast that strikes me, the infinite distance between good and evil that, even so, sometimes coexist within arm’s reach. I am dazzled by the beauty of this world; dazzled, too, by the tragedy that stands alongside. It is safer, perhaps, to not be dazzled; to regard both great beauty and great evil out of the corner of your eye, to stare into the middle ground.
When my uncle lay dying I tried to evade thoughts about his goodness or his death. I talked to family members, smoothed the sheets, stared into space. I took solace in bewilderment. This seemed necessary at the time because the facts were too large to process: To look into the eye of either the goodness or the evil that stood before me would have collapsed the fragile and shuddering dam that was trying, ever so hard, to contain the howl that kept welling up in my brain.
Funny, that word. Howl. So inarticulate and unreasonable. The creature, overwhelmed, howls. Or laughs, when its reason is overwhelmed by surprise. Or weeps, when its reason is overcome by the presence or absence of love. I think reason a very good thing, but my own reason, at least, is too small a sieve through which to sift this wonderful, terrible world.
It frightens me to be overwhelmed and so I am careful what I look at. I don’t want to see the photo in the magazine, the one with a crying baby who has a terribly misshapen lip. I frightened myself the other night by staring into the cloudless sky, confronted by hundreds – maybe thousands – of brilliant galaxies and wondering how their master could possibly want to see or hear me.
I don’t like to be overwhelmed, but lately I don’t know where to look. Maybe it’s a product of getting older, but everything seems to shout at me of overwhelming beauty or dreadful bleakness. How is it possible that little Natalie, whose smile fills up the room, should be fighting for her life? But then, how is it possible that such a beautiful creature as Natalie – or any child – ever came to life at all? Even the familiar things – the trees, the sky, the eyes and ears through which I perceive them – are not less astounding; just less noticed, less considered.
We are surrounded by clues, by echoes of Eden. It strikes me that there has never been a sillier or more desperate fairy tale on earth than the one currently in force, that this intricate world and the intricate creatures who inhabit it are but a happy accident. All the king’s horses and all the king’s men can’t build a government web site but, poof!, the planet they are standing on, the solar system it hurtles through, well, it just kind of happened.
We don’t want to be overwhelmed and overpowered, to be confronted with facts too large for our reason alone to process. We don’t want to see the carefully crafted narrative of our existence punctured by outrageous demonstrations of good or evil, bursting into the atmosphere like an alien invasion. We cannot escape the transcendent so we consider it, if at all, through the corner of our eye, try to calculate an average between the highs and lows, as if we could calculate an average between Christ and Satan.
I said that I meet important people and take them to exotic places but then, every place on this planet is exotic, if only I have eyes to see it. Stranger still, for each person I meet, the heavens wage war and the King himself is offered as ransom.