Since I wrote about Leonard Cohen last month, I have been thinking about an obsession we share, an addiction to beauty.
We’ve been having one of those amazing California Decembers where the afternoon light is so intensely honeyed and clear that you feel you are living inside an immense topaz. This time of year, I take my walk around 4 o’clock whenever I can, timing it so that I turn at the midpoint just before the sun drops behind the hills across the Bay, just when the passing egrets begin to glow like so many sunsets on snow. There is a place where the path curves onto a little bridge over the wetlands. Sometimes I see a heron standing in the reeds, preening its long neck like a snake charmer’s cobra. Light turns the clustered heads of pampas grass into feathery torches. When the clouds begin to burn a deep coral pink, sometimes I feel so overflowing with the extreme splendor of it all, I have to stop and catch my breath.
Those are the moments I live for. Lately, I have been thinking why.
I can say how it feels. My Hebrew is not at all fluent, but the word that occurs to me is in that language: “shleimut,” having the same root as “shalom” (shin-lamed-mem). Like shalom, it has many meanings: wholeness, completeness, perfection. As I walk along, swinging my arms through the crisp afternoon air, I think, yes, this is why I have a body: to smell the sunlight on water, the faint perfume of wild fennel drying on the stalk; to hear the profusion of birdsong; to receive the light pouring in through my eyes, filling me as wine fills a goblet.
Cohen’s “Love Itself,” a sad and beautiful song, includes two verses that depict the experience of shleimut even in the humble glory of dust carried glittering through the air:
All busy in the sunlight
The flecks did float and dance,
And I was tumbled up with them
In formless circumstance….
Then I came back from where I’d been.
My room, it looked the same –
But there was nothing left between
The Nameless and the Name.
During today’s walk, I listened on my beloved iPod to my sixties playlist: Neil Young’s “Birds,” Van Morrison’s “Beside You,” and Lou Reed’s “Coney Island Baby” were followed by the Shirelles: “Dedicated to the One I Love.” By what alchemy do these songs of love and loss wind themselves around the herons and tidepools to create shleimut? I don’t think it’s a simple matter of nostalgia; even though each piece of music reminds me of a moment, I have no wish to return to them. Rather, they evoke the sublime thing about aging: that the libraries in our heads are stacked to the ceiling with stories and images, so that in the space of a walk by the water, I can fly between decades as easily as the cloud of birds on the horizons spans the shore, yet always remain aware of the dry grass stretching before me in countless rows resembling the fur of an enormous lion.
As I think on it, this seems the opposite of nostalgia, because the other thing about growing older is the knowledge that everything we love will leave us after all. It’s probably been 45 years since I first read William Carlos Williams’ unsentimental poem “The Last Words Of My English Grandmother,” with its tale of a journey by ambulance and its then-unfathomable last stanza:
What are all those
fuzzy-looking things out there?
Trees? Well, I’m tired
of them and rolled her head away.
In the end, the power of beauty—what makes it and us shleimut—is its unique ability to convey the knowledge that there is only now. To the forces of the universe that have vouchsafed me this experience, and in the hope I will be permitted to repeat it more times than I can count, I can say only one thing.
Thank you, thank you.