At the top of the Arc de Triomphe, sixteen years old, I had never seen so many lights. They spread out before me like sand flung from an outstretched hand or rather like its reverse, thousands upon thousands of earth-bound stars drawn in with my breath as I stood there. I did not know then how many streets in Paris lead to the monument. In that moment, and in all the moments from that day to this, the banal factoids of the city map meant little. I was in Paris! And I had never seen anything so beautiful.
Whenever I am asked about beautiful things, I think of that night, that moment. I remember being sixteen and unlovely, sixteen and in awe of humanity, its mass, its marvels. I remember thinking that all of those lights were people, just people in cars on their way home to supper, passing by the Louvre as a matter of course rather than exception, not one of them imagining themselves as part of my tableau. I remember breathing deep, deep into my lungs in an effort to capture as much of the experience as I could.
We shall fast forward through the panic that followed, the realization I had lost my tour group, the tears and the snot and the whole issue of being an American teenager with approximately three words of French in her vocabulary. Bonjour. Merci. Jambon?
Years later, a woman now, I was traveling to Arkansas on a heretofore uncharacteristic adventure. I was traveling alone and planning to meet with some friends I did not know well. We had vague plans regarding a spa and a diamond mine. We would return home relaxed and rich, we were sure. I, however, was not so sure I had made the right decision in agreeing to go. I had long since devolved into something of a hermit and had some misgivings about re-entry into the social world. But I had my books and my notebooks and my journal. I had every intention of burying myself in one or more of them for the duration of the flight out.
I stowed my carry-on and claimed my window-seat with a sympathetic if superior glance at the unfortunate fellow sitting to my right. Before long, we were airborne, I and my unfortunate neighbor. He did seem uncomfortable and a bit bored. I tried to leave him the majority of the joint arm-rest. I had the window and, below me, a patchwork canvas of farms. Again, I looked down upon the world, this time from thousands of feet in the air and I was overcome by the sudden and breathtaking realization of land, miles upon miles of land, sectioned and perfect like long-forgotten flash-cards in a class-room: this the square, that the circle, this green, that brown and then blue...blue lakes and rivers, blue like they never are up close, blue like the maps, like the crayons, like make-believe. It was empty and beautiful. All the people were vanished, reduced to a pixel in a photograph rather than its focus.
More years, fewer years, a tumble of time. There are moments, bright moments, light moments, and others, a thousand incidental slivers of joy, of pain, shivering into the skin like splinters from a broken glass, remembered in its volume rather than the specificity of any one piece. And yet...
Aspen trees in Colorado, the sun flittering through the leaves, a gray-white residue lingering on my fingertips as I stretch to touch one and then another. I could ride all day. The sky yellows, grows sick.
My niece, a collection of sticks in an incubator as my brother beams, "Isn't she beautiful?" The moment is beautiful, even if she is not. So I say yes.
She will grow into the praise.
My father sits on a stool by the couch. My uncle is there, another collection of sticks, this one bundled in skin and force of will. He speaks rarely now and mostly to my father.
There is pain in the house, sickness and a waiting hush.
This too. This most.
This is beautiful.