On Beauty: Scotland and Pennsylvania
*Scotland: Thursday, August 10, 2006
We are driving toward Loch Ness on a Haggis tour bus when I first hear whispers of the foiled attack at Heathrow. The news comes in fragments as we weave our way through the lush green of the Highlands, tidbits gathered by tour members with cell phones, intermittent updates on the radio: major terrorist plot involving flights from London to America, extra security, evacuation, restrictions limiting carry-on luggage.
Our tour guide, Fergus, tries to keep things as “wild and sexy” as his company’s advertising promises, blasting the Automatic’s “Monster” over the loudspeakers as we near Fort Augustus, amusing himself and at least some of his audience with off-color jokes for the first stretch of our long drive back to Edinburgh. It makes me think of the teachers I work with who had to keep going on 9-11, pretending that everything was normal, sneaking peeks at CNN online, turning on the news during their free periods. I wonder if Fergus is secretly as anxious as I am to finish the tour and find a television, to get the full story, to figure out what all of this means for me, for the world.
And yet, part of me likes that in the isolated bubble that is this tour bus, it all feels far away. From my back row seat, I can hear little above the hum of the air conditioner, and I lay my head back on the seat, trying to take in the quiet of the countryside: sheep scattered across fields of gold, sprinkled with purple heather and bright pink bursts of flowering thistle, the green vegetation on the glacial bluffs darkening to brown in the distance.
It is beautiful, all of it, stunning really, and yet I find myself feeling not the ache of beauty, the one I feel when I can simply sit and take it all in, but rather the ache for home. I long for those I know would love to be here with me, for places I can visit without feeling the weight of capturing them in pictures and words, for beauty I can call mine, its familiarity adding to its richness.
Here, now, even my words are tentative, grasping for cohesiveness as we fly through Scotland at one hundred kilometers per hour. One minute, the patterns of vegetation on the hillside are a swirled mass of browns and greens, like the earth as viewed from outer space. The next, they become a mini-golf course, lighter green blobs outlined in darker green.
And suddenly, being on another continent matters in ways it hasn’t for the past five weeks. I’m no further away than I have been, but I feel further knowing that Heathrow might be shut down, that my plane ticket may do me no good, that the world is full of people who don’t like Americans. I wonder if my flight was one of those to be targeted, try to imagine what it would feel like, thousands of miles in the air, to know you were going to die.
Looking out the window on my left, I catch a glimpse of a patch of sunlight on the gently sloped hillside. A cloud advances upon it, gradually sweeping up tree after tree into its shadow, like a curtain closing.
*Pennsylvania: Sunday, September 3, 2006
I am sitting in the back seat of my parents’ cranberry red Ford Taurus, sipping a cup of McDonald’s coffee. I hadn’t planned to get up before six over the long weekend. In fact, I hadn’t planned to set my alarm at all, but then again, none of us had expected my youngest brother to call yesterday and say that he’d lost one-third of his vision in his left eye. Gone. Without explanation.
It’s a little after seven now, and we’ve been on the road for an hour or so, heading from Lancaster, where I’ve been visiting my parents for the weekend, to State College, where my brother is supposed to be beginning his senior year of college in two days. He has a doctor’s appointment at 9, and we expect that he might have to go into surgery immediately afterwards. My mom, a nurse, suspects a retinal detachment, but even if it’s not, we all suspect that it’s serious.
We are driving along the Susquehanna River, winding upward through the Alleghney Mountains. Fog rises off the water, and mist drifts through the lush, green valleys. This is prettier than Scotland, I think, amazed that in the forty or fifty times I must have made this drive in my own college career, I’ve never realized this before. If I were on a tour bus, I think, I’d be commenting on how gorgeous America is, how I just wish I could live in a place like this. Strange that I have. Strange too that this is the time I’m finally paying attention.
But maybe beauty is like that. Maybe it hits you most when you least expect it, when you can least stop to enjoy it. Maybe it’s most striking when we’re most aware of our own mortality, most humbled by our own powerlessness. Maybe beauty’s not meant to be grasped, but to call us to something deeper.