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Cherish Life's Rough Edges as Well

Relationships fray, nerves get raw. It's all part of a precious beauty.

November 28, 2002|Crispin Sartwell | Crispin Sartwell teaches philosophy at the Maryland Institute College of Art.

The other day, my daughter Jane, my son Sam and I set out to explore an abandoned barn, about a mile away from our house, that we'd spied from the street.

It was quite a sweet autumn day in the hills of southern Pennsylvania: temps in the 60s, ground soaked by a morning drizzle and the leaves at their most saturated, in a continuum from the deepest scarlet to yellow.

We walked through the fallow fields and poked around the weathered wood structure and the older, related stone foundations, peeked inside at a couple of beat-up chicken coops and the layered remnants of ancient hay and the rake that had been used to gather it.

On that day, I found myself actually giving thanks, though I don't know to whom, or even, exactly, for what.

After all, Sammy tripped and kind of scraped his hand on a corn stalk. We had to pick our way through a variety of trash: everything from a six-pack of Smirnoff Ice empties -- left there perhaps by a rural teenager nursing his baby alcoholism -- to a couple of '70s Sprite bottles, broken. We heard a tractor, a dirt bike, a siren, some gunshots.

By the time we got there, Jane wanted to leave. She was tired, maybe her diaper was wet. The grass was too high and she kept falling down. She started crying.

The edges of our lives are fraying. There's always a corner that's coming unraveled while you work on the others. It costs 500 bucks every time you take the car to the shop; you're leaking money. You missed the dentist. Why does this thing jam all the time?

Relationships fray, too. Your nerves get raw, your love gets tarnished. The teenagers are irritated, and the toddler thinks its funny to bash you with that block. Married people wear on one another, or erode each other into something partial and disintegrating.

If we really want to give thanks for being alive in this world, we've got to figure out a way to make its and our disintegration part of what we love. If we love the world only here and there and in spite of its impurities, we don't love the world at all.

There is beauty in purity: of the austere mathematical equation or Greek sculpture, of virginity and virtue. But there is a beauty, too, that arises in use, a beauty of things that, like us, become and are constantly in the process of slipping away into time, like a tattered flag into the wind, losing the thread.

That is the beauty of Billie Holiday's voice, wearing thin with pain but still surrounding a center of intense life. It's the useful beauty of the hay rake, rusted almost black, that we saw in that barn. It's the round of Jane's life -- eating, fussing, falling, making a mess, sleeping, losing a toy, retreating in pleasure to her mother's lap, playing, dancing, bathing.

It's our stupidities, our arbitrariness, the jaggedness of our edges, our mixed feelings about ourselves, our incompleteness. It's the beauty of the leaves today, further into the autumn, stripped trees on the rises, the rest of the foliage merging toward yellow brown, and falling.

And it's our love for each other that each irritation weathers, that is carved into our faces now, that knows too much. The fraying fabric, faded, is lovely too: What we've lost is lovely, but so is what remains and keeps giving itself over -- abandoning itself not ecstatically, but steadily -- what, in us, keeps disintegrating into one another.

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