This is a story about how I once cried in Spanish. (I’ve laughed in Spanish lots of times.) First, I must say I am definitely one to savor a sunset, a good plate of pasta, and a triumphant mountaintop, but I cannot remember another time when I have cried at the sight of something. I was listening to Ted Radio Hour’s “What is Beauty?”, Richard Seymour caught my ear. An industrial designer, Seymour has spent quite a bit of time examining the faces of surveyors of beauty, to which he says the expressions on the faces of the subjects “more so look like pain than look like beauty.” Instead of a look of elation or animated satisfaction, he describes most commonly finding a bent brow and contorted features, claiming that this stems from, “the tension between the sweetness and the bitterness.” The bittersweet revel of a beautiful something has long haunted me, and I understand this point all too well. The immortalization of a moment and knowing I will never experience it again is a reality I feel, consciously or subconsciously, each time I encounter something soul-worthy. Richard Seymour says we need beauty. It is medicine. But, like all healing elements, it does not come without its pang.
En route to Patagonia, Argentina, I was electric with nerves. I had never been so steeped with anticipation in regard to a mere physical place. As the plane drew closer to the land, so did my jaw. It was unlike any place I’d seen with my own eyes. A journey ahead of us in a somewhat sleepy winter town, I didn’t get to saturate the moment with my sensibilities. Finally, we walked into our hostel in El Calafate and entered to huge dining area that was separated from the wraparound porch by panoramic windows. There was a fireplace crackling in the center of the room, and I sat down on a nearby wooden bench adorned with woven pillows so I could warm up after our chilled search and uphill trek to our lodging. In that moment--to the soundtrack of Argentine folk music--as I looked out from our perch up on the hill, all of the wonder and incredulity that had built up inside of me on the plane as I surveyed this foreign, austere landscape welled up and spilled over. Tears brimmed, and for the first time in a very long time, they quietly slipped down my cheeks. All I could think about was the absurdity of the fact that I was finally sitting in the Patagonic region of Argentina, a place I had been dreaming about since I was a child. That moment almost didn’t even feel tangible when I was in it, and I still have to remind myself that it happened.
The jagged mountain ranges that looked scraped and haggard were gleaming with snow. The long, shaggy fields that separated mountains and lakes were somehow disjointed and erratic, giving way to bursts of sunlit grass and brilliantly colored spots of water. The sun was always either setting or rising in the winter sky, and there was a constant blue-gold glow to every inch of illuminated earth. The stars at night shone as if they were never meant to shine anywhere else. It was magic. And I was magic. I saw myself in the land, every fractured rock, harsh wind, parched field, and shining pool, sparkle of ice, wild flower. It broke open, deep and wide, what it means to be fiercely beautiful. Life will find any means by which to claw its way and grow its roots into every inch of this wondrous planet in no less than an extraordinary display of its power. We are life, and we are beauty. No matter how lush, or arid, how vibrant, or hushed, we are “strong in will, to strive to seek, and not to yield.” (Ulysses by Alfred, Lord Tennyson.) There must always be something unattainable and intangible, larger than ourselves and more potent than anything we could inspire. The mingling of pain and beauty comes in the touching of a mortal soul with an immortal truth, like cutting glass with a diamond. There is a sting in that that is a bit of fire on the tongue and chill air on the soul. In seeking out beauty, we make room for the parts of ourselves that are otherwise nearly impossible to evoke. It is seldom uncomplicated, but it can be as simple as we wish it to. Take two tablespoons of sought-out beauty as often as possible, and embrace the sentiment “it’s so beautiful, it hurts.”