This terrible beauty, this eerie sunset of doom is quarantined by a photograph. Here it appears as something from a saccharine dream of candied romance. But in reality it is the harbinger of destruction. Of the heat waves and fire season that people from drought stricken areas such as mine know to loathe.
Comfort and beauty intertwine and comfort finds a way to snake back around and bite harder the hand that wished this world were without the pain baked into all things. Beauty becomes a mirage that blinds the beholder to the harsher truth it conceals. I flinch during this time when people say “look at the sunset” as if it were just a sight to behold devoid of this brutal context where people lose their homes and vast numbers of animals lose their lives and habitats. Then I’ll catch myself saying the same thing and cringe at my mindlessness (but of course blame it on the debilitating heat).
It’s as if it is deep in human nature to live for the postcard image even though it’s a cheap ten cent glimmer of hope. Any shine at all will do to whet the appetite for the notion that things will be alright. As do I reluctantly grab the camera and take the exposure knowing that this outcome will result. An image taken in guilt yet into which I cannot bake the pain to inspire true revelation or change even in my own habits. These petty words trail like an anguished afterthought in a time when comfort (and its twin – convenience) is the business of the day and the sunset has become the barrier signifying the mystery of a collective denial seen as a brilliant display that might as well have been put on by the Dynamation gods in a Ray Harryhausen movie.
There is a poem by Walt Whitman from Leaves of Grass that has resonated for me ever since I read it as a teenager. It’s about the struggle of existence with the transitory nature we have found ourselves in. The turbulent foam we move in. Perhaps even the quantum foam of spacetime itself as John Wheeler hypothesized.
This poem shows the empathy we have for others struggling as Whitman had for this swimmer. I knew such a courageous swimmer of life who died in a tragic accident roughly a year ago. He too was in his middle age. Never did I think when I read this decades ago that it would eventually embody a dear friend I thought would outlive me.
I see a beautiful gigantic swimmer swimming naked through the
eddies of the sea,
His brown hair lies close and even to his head....he strikes out
with courageous arms...he urges himself with his legs.
I see his white body....I see his undaunted eyes;
I hate the swift-running eddies that would dash him headforemost
on the rocks,
What are you doing you ruffianly red-trickled waves?
Will you kill the courageous giant? Will you kill him in the prime
of his middle age?
Steady and long he struggles;
He is baffled and banged and bruised....he holds out while his
strength holds out,
The slapping eddies are spotted with his blood....they bear him
away....they roll him and swing him and turn him;
His beautiful body is borne in this circling eddies....it is continually
bruised on rocks,
Swiftly and out of sight is borne the brave corpse.
And through his empathy, Whitman sees himself as the swimmer and through poetry becomes the swimmer as much as the witness. All of us in the foam. All of us swimming through randomness. Bound by our common struggle. Illuminated by our undaunted courage. Holding out against forces beyond our control.